Opinion / Chen Weihua

Recycling is not a dirty word

By Chen Weihua (China Daily) Updated: 2012-04-27 08:05

Recycling is not a dirty word

Americans are often regarded as wasteful people and it has been said that if everyone consumed like people in the United States, it would require the resources of four planet Earths.

This is largely true.

However, the recycling stations and thrift shops I come across in New York defy such an image. They make me feel Americans, or New Yorkers at least, are less wasteful than Chinese people who blissfully believe frugality is an inherent virtue of the nation even as they consume and discard.

For example, in Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket every Saturday and Monday, you can see a tent, which is a recycling station for textiles. People bring bags of clean used clothing, hats, paired shoes, linens, handbags and belts that they no longer want to the tent for other people to use. The participants, either volunteers at the station or donors, are often young people.

Such recycling stations are available in eight Greenmarkets in New York City. Along with hundreds of thrift shops, secondhand stores, consignment shops and flea markets, they form a huge network where used goods find new owners. And many of the thrift shops are run by charity organizations to benefit the poor and needy, or use the proceeds to help people with AIDS.

In Shanghai, the thrift and secondhand shops, which were popular in the old days, have long gone. The once wildly popular secondhand store in Shanghai known as Huaiguojiu, or Huaihai Road State-owned Secondhand Store, is only a distant memory, so are the hundreds of recycling stations once scattered all over the city.

Now the people who collect unwanted goods are migrant workers riding tricycles, who are unable to provide an effective recycling service.

Unlike New York, where you will find stylish young people selling or buying secondhand clothing in a shop in Brooklyn's cool Williamsburg neighborhood, most Shanghainese refuse to buy or wear used clothing, even vintage items, regarding them as dirty and a loss of face.

While New Yorkers discard some 200,000 tons of textiles a year, Shanghainese reportedly produce 130,000 tons of used clothing annually, much of it ending up in landfills.

The good news is the city has started to place clothing recycling bins in some old residential compounds. But new and upper-scale residential quarters, where the young and wealthy live and where more recyclable clothing is produced, are often not equipped with such facilities.

Considering the enormous pressure on the environment and resources from a fast-growing China, it makes a lot of sense to promote recycling in China.

Meanwhile, China's huge rural and migrant population, who are often at the lowest level of income distribution, mean secondhand items would have a huge market. This huge market should inspire young people to start recycling businesses. Some of the most successful online thrift stores in the US were launched by MBA students.

In line with the national strategy of shifting to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly development mode, the Ministry of Commerce issued guidance last December to promote the development of recycling businesses in China during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-15).

After all, China, the world's second largest economy, is still a developing country, ranking 96th in per capita GDP compared with the US, which is eighth, according to the World Bank. There is simply no reason for Chinese people to be wasteful.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily USA. E-mail: chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 04/27/2012 page8)

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