The Informal Economy that Recycles 90% of China’s Waste

China’s War on Waste

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

China’s War on Waste looks at a culture that creates and discards more products than any other society in the world. Despite its centrally planned economy, there are many ways in which China’s economy is beyond the control of central government. This relates, in part, to production decisions approved by (often corrupt) local officials and, in part, to an extensive informal economy under no official control.

China’s 2017 ban on imported waste was a first step in Beijing’s effort to shut down the informal waste sector. Thanks largely to informal rubbish scavengers, at present China recycles  90% of its recyclable waste. This figure is more than double the rate of most industrialized countries.

The plastic landfill waste gathered by informal waste collectors is resold three to four times before reaching a reprocessing center. Along with their 2017 ban on imported waste, China also shut down thousands of unlicensed backyard reprocessing centers that produced dangerous toxins affecting both the environment and worker health. Many of these centers have since reopened and continue to operate illegally.

The government is also trying to put informal garbage pickers out of business by demolishing the shacks they live in.*

Some of these informal scavengers have been replaced by 5,000 automated recycling machines that reward users for by depositing one cent in their bank account for every bottle they insert.

China hopes to incinerate 50% of Beijing’s waste by 2020 – in plants that recapture the heat produced to generate electricity. At present, the city incinerates one-eighth of its garbage, despite the toxic dioxins existing plants release to the air.

The government has also introduced curbside recycling in some areas. Thus far, the uptake by residents has been poor.

*They put the garbage picker featured in the film out of business by erecting a wall between his home and the street. He can climb the wall to seek casual laboring jobs but can’t take his bicycle-powered recycling rig with him.


9 thoughts on “The Informal Economy that Recycles 90% of China’s Waste

      • The entire world today is reaping the ‘benefits” of a the capitalist/materialist agenda, a process that was guaranteed to usher in the final stages of entropy for civilization. But of course it takes a modicum of functional brain power to make the connection between a finite environment and unlimited extraction of natural resources.


  1. Too bad China and other countries are following the US’ bad example. People in other countries seem hypnotized with US glitz, and they associate consumerism with wealth. If they only knew . . .


  2. Excellent point about corruption, Sha’Tara. My grandparents clearly understood about the world being finite. They saved up for major purchases (except their home). If they couldn’t pay cash for something, they went without.


    • Which brings up another point related to predatory capitalism, and that’s the debt industry. If borrowing was not possible without equivalent collateral, how much could waste be reduced by… 90%? Availability of instant credit is perhaps the greatest difference between our parents’ generation and ours and that of our children. While I was never seduced by debt (I always compared the world “debt” to the word “death) most of the people I know were, and still are, indebted to their eyeballs. I wouldn’t even borrow to continue my higher education, I quit and went to work, then learned to “make do” with my earnings. I don’t feel sorry for “student debters” at all. They believed, gambled and lost. Too bad, so sad. Universities (just like hospitals) under capitalism are gambling casinos.


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