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Some of these informal scavengers have been replaced by 5,000 automated recycling machines that reward users for by depositing one cent in their bank account for every bottle they insert.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