Recycling, Shanghai Style.

Recycling is not an activity you might automatically associate with the world's largest producer of disposable stuff. Know what though? Chinese people are avid recyclers, driven in part by thrift, and in part by business - after all, several of China's biggest multi-billionaires made their fortunes in the waste recycling business. 

Walk down any street in Shanghai and you will soon notice the scrap recyclers - they're the guys collecting used water bottles, dismantling old mattresses to remove the metal springs, and flattening and stacking used cardboard boxes.

Roving scrap merchants go from house to house tinkling a small 'bell' made from a tin saucepan or teapot lid, the sound of which lets people know to bring out any scrap they might want to sell. The merchants then collate and stack their recyclables onto the back of a tricycle cart and pass it up the line to a bigger recycling unit, hopefully making a small profit along the way.

What can be recycled is limited only by your imagination and your patience. I've watched old nails being painstakingly removed from lengths of wood, and the plastic coating being stripped from short lengths of wire to get to the copper beneath.

I can't tell you much about the big busines end of the recycling game (you can read more about how recycling works in China at Adam Minter's excellent blog Shanghai Scrap), but I can tell you how it looks from the bottom up, where I live. 

Meet Mr Zhang (above) and his wife (below), the couple in charge of weekend recycling in my lane. Mr Zhang and his wife come from Shandong province but moved to Shanghai many years ago, and while the recycling business hasn't made them rich (far from it), it has enabled them to put their two adult sons through university. No small feat for any parent.

Our lane has some 70-odd houses arranged in 8 rows, many houses consisting of two or three separate apartments. Overall, we produce a great deal of rubbish, most of which goes through the windows seen above into large black wheelie bins in the refuse room, a small building in the middle of the lane. 

Anything discarded but worthy of recycling gets put to one side by Mr Zhang, or more often, kept in people's homes until the weekend when it can be sold. Mr and Mrs Zhang set up a miniature recycling 'shop' in fornt of the refuse room first thing on Saturday morning which stays open until late Sunday afternoon. A huge sack for plastic bottles. Stacks of newspaper and cardboard. Glass bottles and jars. Scrap metal. Scrap wood. Scrap fabric. In addition, they have a set of green semi-industrial scales used for weighing the scrap people bring them and depending on the type, they will pay a small amount per kilogram.

Two 'customers' have brought a box full of glass bottles for weighing.

By mid-morning the piles are getting large and Mr Zhang begins stacking his blue tricycle with a load to take to the recycling plant.

The empty tricycle....

Now fully stacked. Mr Zhang tells me the most lucrative items to recycle are newspapers and plastic drink bottles, with a full load like this netting him around 100yuan ($16) at the recycling plant. He would usually manage to fill two loads over two days, perhaps three on a good weekend. Not a great deal of money for two full days' work, but it earns him extra on top of his earnings as the night guard for our lane.

He was interested to hear about how recycling works in Australia, that we have a separate bin for recyclables that is collected once a week.

'How much do they pay you for it?' Mr Zhang asked me.

'Why, nothing! I have to pay them to take it away!' I explained.

Mr Zhang was flabbergasted. To him, it seemed an extremely backward way of doing things and you know, I had to agree. Perhaps if we were paid for our recycling we would be better at it. But perhaps recycling only becomes economically viable in a place where labour is cheap, and everything has a price.

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