Recycling in Xi’an: An Opportunity or a Waste?

Article by Anthony Westby

While sorting trash from the party the night before into proper bins, it is easy to forget recycling is a business. In fact, for many years China was the main importer of the world’s recycled materials. This changed with the passing of China’s National Sword Policy in 2018. By setting extremely low contamination standards on 24 different types of recyclable materials (many of those plastics), this policy significantly reduced the world market for these materials. However, almost immediately after this national policy was initiated, many municipal governments around China began their own recycling ventures to supplement the national demand for these materials. This year Xi’an joined the list of cities making it mandatory for residents to sort and recycle their trash. In every case these new municipal recycling programs have been framed in the news as a gallant effort to protect the environment, not as business ventures. Although, on the surface recycling seems to be a “green” industry, is it always? As residents of Xi’an, are there more effective ways to frame this new program to make it more eco-friendly? What can we do to ensure this new program actually affects the environment positively, instead of merely paying lip service to it?

Whether recycling is a “green” industry, really depends on the material being recycled, recycling plant infrastructure, and processes being used. A quick search online reveals a plethora of notoriously counterproductive recycling programs; e.g. the recycling of glass, various plastics, and cardboard food containers that have all been shown to have relatively heavy carbon footprints or proven to be almost impossible to recycle (ultimately making their way out into the environment). Although efforts to find more sustainable recycling processes is a hot research topic these days, the technology is just not there yet. However, recycling being a business doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t an effective way to protect or clean up the environment. Yes, in some cases the transportation, processing and remolding of these recycled materials leave a heavier footprint than traditional disposal processes, but if taken collectively and over multiple generations, recycling comes out on the positive side of the carbon footprint equation. Looking deeper into the recycling paradigm, it becomes obvious its real power comes from shaping consumer behavior.

Framing recycling programs as a protective measure towards the environment plays on our values as citizens of Earth, yet fails to address the most deleterious consumer behaviors for the environment, e.g. over consumption and wastefulness. For many of us living in cities, where the majority of waste originates, environmental protection is an abstract concept, alienating us from the rationale being trumpeted behind recycling programs. However, if we frame recycling as an effective way to manage common social resources, it becomes much more personal and vested. From this perspective, the distinction becomes between resources and garbage. If an item can be used to produce something other people need or want at a lower cost or higher quality than would be possible without that item, then the item is a resource. If the item cannot be used to produce something desirable for others, then the item is considered garbage. From this distinction, the logical response as a society is to recycle resources not garbage. Under this frame, garbage consumes resources and should be minimized.

There are many strategies to effectively minimize waste and maximize resources, but they all take planning with some research and maybe a little creative thinking. As residents of Xi’an, it has become our responsibility to reflect on our daily lives and pinpoint actions we can take to maximize the effectiveness of the city’s new recycling program. The city is now providing the infrastructure, but we are ultimately responsible for how or if we use it efficiently. The first line of action we all can take is to minimize our use of non-recyclables, e.g. Styrofoam containers, single-use coffee cups, etc. So tomorrow morning when you are heading out to the local cafe for your coffee make sure to bring your own cup. Repurposing items is also an effective habit to not only save money but also prolong resource utility. This takes some creative thinking, but with access to the internet it typically becomes a matter of simply following a few steps. Lastly, and probably the strategy with the most influence on manufacturers, is find alternatives to the single- use and non-recyclable items used in your daily life. Shopping or ordering takeout with this in mind is a very effective way to vote with your money. As more and more people shop with these values in mind, shops and restaurants will feel pressured into only using more eco-friendly materials. With this new recycling program the city is providing us with an opportunity to start having a say in the environmental legacy we leave behind. It is up to each of us to use it effectively.

Happy recycling neighbors!

Anthony Westby is a guy who recycles.