Rich man, poor man, recycling man

In the U.S. college students volunteer to sort through trash. But in China, that's not what education is for -- at least for now

Published February 9, 2009 10:35PM (EST)

As the global economy has cratered, and prices for a vast array of commodities have suddenly gone from boom to bust, so too has the global market for recycled paper and plastic retreated with astonishing haste. This is in large part due to China's drastically diminished appetite for waste materials that can be reprocessed into packaging materials for its massive export machine. A collapse in exports translates into reduced demand for packaging which suddenly means no more hunger for shredded water bottles.

A firsthand look at China's turnabout leads Adam Minter, a journalist living in Shanghai who has extensively covered the local recycling industry, to conclude that "there are two cultures of recycling."

In the developed world (Europe and North America, in particular), recycling is a moral act, done -- primarily -- as expiation for consumption. Little to no consideration is given to the cost of recycling; and, on those rare occasions when economics enter the discussion, they often do so because an entity -- say, a city recycling program -- suddenly finds itself in need of a subsidy to continue running a government recycling program. The average citizen rarely considers the economic value or cost of his or her sorted paper, cans, and bottles; sorting such materials is a civic duty.

Meanwhile, in the developing world, recycling is an economic act, done primarily for income. Little to no consideration is given to the environmental benefits of recycling; on those rare occasions when environment enters the discussion, it's a side-benefit, often utilized as a marketing ploy by companies seeking more valuable recyclables for less money. The average citizen (say, in Shanghai), rarely considers the environmental benefit of selling his or her paper, cans, and bottles to the local scrap peddlers. Almost to a person, he or she is concerned with obtaining market value from an item that has value -- to someone else.

Minter is further bemused by reports of college students at the University of Minnesota voluntarily sorting through trash "in an effort to increase recycling on campus." Chinese college students would never engage in a similar activity, he argues, because "trash sorting is a job in China, and it's one that Chinese students don't want."

The collapse of the recycling industry in China, while state-subsidized recycling programs continue merrily along in the U.S., would seem to offer support for Minter's cultural recycling thesis. But he is guilty of at least one over-generalization. There are plenty of people in the developed world who view recycling as an economic act. No matter when I put my bottles and cans outside my house, they are long gone before the city arrives to pick them up, because other economic actors -- "poachers" -- have gotten there first.

(Newsprint and cardboard, however, do not seem to be much sought after these days -- ample evidence that economics is at play in the West, and not just virtue.)

So really, it's not so much "culture" that is at issue, but the economics of class, regardless of whether you live in the developed or developing world.

Which leads to my second observation. Chinese college students may not be interested in sorting through trash now, but it's possible that their even more highly educated children will be. Changing attitudes towards the "virtue" of recycling might be part of what is in play in the theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve -- which, roughly speaking, holds that at early states of economic growth in a given country, environmental degradation gets worse, but as citizens get richer, things start to get better.

There is a vast amount of academic literature attempting to prove or disprove the EKC -- it by no means holds true for all types of pollution in all situations. But I think there is a certain intuitive truth that as cultures get richer, attitudes towards the environment and the consequences of an industrialize-first, clean-the-water-and-air-later development strategy become more visibly problematic. Which is not to dispute that there are broadly differing attitudes towards recycling in the developed and developing world, but merely to point out that current Chinese attitudes could be a product of a particular time and place, and can change very quickly as circumstances change.

Likewise, depending on how bad the economy in the U.S. gets, we may find more of an emphasis on recycling as an act of economic survival right here at home.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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