Rethinking Recycling as China Doubles Down on Consumerism
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2017-07-01 11:39:35

With 500,000 tons of household waste generated every day, China is under immense pressure to deal with its mounting garbage problem. Alongside initiatives to increase incineration rates and enforce trash sorting, the nation has worked to improve its substandard recycling system. Currently, professional recycling services only account for 10 to 20 percent of total waste recovery in China, while the bulk of recycling efforts rely on waste pickers who comb the streets salvaging other people’s trash.

Waste disposal expert Tom Szaky aims to help China clean up its garbage game. Szaky is the CEO of U.S.-based recycling company TerraCycle, which established its first China branch in Shanghai in late 2016. The company works with individuals and businesses around the globe to collect hard-to-recycle items — everything from office supplies and plastic bags to children’s toys and automotive parts — preventing over 2 million kilograms of waste from ending up in landfills and incinerators each month.

What creates every problem in the world is consumerism.

Originally from Hungary, Szaky grew up in Canada and later enrolled at Princeton University in the U.S., but he dropped out to focus on TerraCycle. Founded in 2001, the company now operates in more than 20 countries and is working to gain a foothold in China.

“The garbage is already coming in, but the question is: Two years from now, how big will it be, and do we have the right motivations?” Szaky said, referring to the company’s efforts in China. “How do we get people to [recycle] when the only benefit is environmental and social, but no direct payment? That is the key question.”

The company’s current programs in the nation focus on plastic bottles, dental products, and hair care product packaging. In addition to funding recycling initiatives, TerraCycle encourages people to deposit used items for “upcycling” — transforming waste materials into new products — in return for credit that can be converted into charitable cash donations. The repurposed materials themselves have a social impact, too: One TerraCycle program pledged to donate desks and chairs made from recycled plastic packaging to a Beijing school for homeless youth and children of migrant workers.

During his second visit to China, the 35-year-old entrepreneur spoke to Sixth Tone about how a socially conscious American business can expand into China, his hopes and concerns for the country’s recycling industry, and how consumerism contributes to the global garbage problem. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tom Szaky poses for a photo at the general headquarters of TerraCycle in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S., Feb. 10, 2015. Courtesy of TerraCycle

Tom Szaky poses for a photo at the general headquarters of TerraCycle in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S., Feb. 10, 2015. Courtesy of TerraCycle

Sixth Tone: China produces a huge amount of household waste each year — around 185 million tons in 2016. Where does it go?

Tom Szaky: The vast majority of waste today is either informally or formally disposed. The big problem for informal disposal — which is about 25 percent of the [world’s] waste — is that it ends up in the water system and then in the ocean. What is formally disposed is either landfilled or incinerated. Then, a very small percent is recycled — typically what has value, like aluminum or certain types of glass, certain types of plastic.

The garbage ending up in the ocean is tremendously bad for the ecosystem; garbage being burned ends up in the air; garbage being landfilled ends up in a big pile.

Sixth Tone: How does the Chinese recycling industry compare with that of other countries?

Tom Szaky: First, what it does with waste is very similar to North America: a big amount of landfilling. As it pertains to informal disposal, it is very similar to Southeast Asia, [countries] like Vietnam or Cambodia — in those places where there’s still a lot of informal garbage, you just throw it anywhere. There’s a really big informal system, people who go through garbage and collect aluminum cans … similar to [places in] Latin America, like Brazil. But then — unlike Southeast Asia, unlike Latin America — [China] is very modern and very fast-moving. The scale is like nowhere else.

What is unique in China, though, is that a lot of ability to consume the waste, [to put it] back into the manufacturing system, is here. So even historically when we collect, say, pens in Europe and melt them down into really high-quality materials, those may end up in Chinese factories to be [made] into new products. So this becomes the real hub of conversion.

Locals participate in a TerraCycle community event in Shanghai, May 18, 2017. Courtesy of TerraCycle

Locals participate in a TerraCycle community event in Shanghai, May 18, 2017. Courtesy of TerraCycle

Sixth Tone: TerraCycle’s Chinese programs focus on recycling oral care and beauty products. Is this strategy specific to China?

Tom Szaky: To be very honest, it is where we can get funding the quickest. Because here is the problem: What makes an aluminum can recycled in China — and a pen not recycled, or a lipstick not recycled, or a toothbrush not recycled — has nothing to do with the technical ability to recycle; it has to do with money. The aluminum is so valuable in the aluminum can that you can still make money after you cover the cost of transportation and the cost of processing. But on something like a toothbrush or a cosmetics package, it costs more to collect and process than the results are worth. They need a company to fund the difference, so we talk to many companies and work with the ones who are excited and want to jump on quickly.

Sixth Tone: Which environmental problems are you most concerned about in China?

Tom Szaky: It’s not about a specific environmental problem like air, or water, or garbage; it’s about the global problem of consumerism. What creates every problem in the world is consumerism. People eating too much meat, people shopping too much — it’s all this idea of consume, consume, consume.

It’s a global addiction of people who have money. I grew up in communism, too. I was born in Budapest when it was under the Russian Iron Curtain, and I can understand what it’s like when you have no ability to shop, to [then gain] the ability to have what you see. The problem is, we don’t see the negative easily. The negative doesn’t show up here; it shows up in the ocean, in the forest, in places you don’t see.

We have to limit consumerism. Instead of buying things that have huge amounts of packaging, buy things with no packaging; instead of buying things that are disposable, buy things that are durable. Shop for what you really need.

Color-coded bins are displayed at an event to promote trash sorting in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, March 28, 2010. Wu Huang/VCG

Color-coded bins are displayed at an event to promote trash sorting in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, March 28, 2010. Wu Huang/VCG

Sixth Tone: What improvements can China’s waste disposal system adopt from other countries?

Tom Szaky: I think some of the things that China should think about are, for example, creating packaging taxes. Lots of countries in the world have packaging taxes, which is a good idea because it releases money to fund recycling. [Second], educating kids about recycling in school to get them into the culture of wanting to do the right thing for the environment. Those are two key things I would really recommend for the overall country — or any country.

Sixth Tone: What is the policy environment in China like for green businesses like yours?

Tom Szaky: I think it’s quickly becoming much better. The momentum is in the right direction. China is leading the world in wind and solar energy production, and all these things are really becoming quite incredible, especially as the entire world is becoming more right-wing. If you look at the politics in the U.S., look at the politics in Europe, it is going in the wrong direction — very negative for the environment. Here, it’s moving in the right direction.

Editor: Jessica Levine.

(Header image: A view of a recycling center in Beijing, Aug. 30, 2009. Lin Hui/VCG)