BEIJING — The world now produces over four billion tons of waste every year. China buys some of it — mainly scrap metal, plastic and paper — to feed demand from factories and construction companies.
Here on Dongzhimenwai, a street in downtown Beijing, people gather to sell their waste. Old ladies line up with carts of plastic bottles, stacks of newspapers and even bits of toys and metal kitchenware they've collected. The plastic bottles are melted down to make everything from acrylic clothing to electronics.
Buyer Liu Aiguo explains what happens to this so-called trash once it's in his hands. "I fill up the truck, and then I drive it to Tongzhou town outside the city, to a holding depot that takes it to factories," he says. "We buy plastic bottles and bales of paper, and we buy steel. But it depends on the quality. We can also go and collect from offices that have a lot of paper."
The materials are sorted and then sold on to factories that will melt down this plastic and turn the stacks of old newspaper into rolls of paper for use in new fibre.
Recycling provides a livelihood for the collectors, but it also provides cheaper raw materials for China's manufacturing and construction sectors.
In an impressive boardroom at the Beijing headquarters of the China Metals Recycling Association, the organization's Vice Secretary General Zhang Xizhong explains how its members generate $40 billion a year by recycling 10 million tons of aluminum, copper and lead. But, he says, a weaker Chinese economy has reduced demand for imported scrap.
"The growth of the economy has slowed down, and we can see in the first half of this year that both the volume and the value of imports dropped," he says. "The demand for metals in China remains largely stable, but because demand isn’t growing like before, prices become a problem."
Recycling metals in Beijing — Photo: Cory Doctorow
Zhang says China can protect its environment and save precious energy and water by using scrap rather than smelting new metals. "The Chinese government has as early as 2002 put the policies in place to make recycling a central part of our economy," he says. "Companies involved in this industry have grown a lot under government's supportive policies, and we expect policies to continue to develop the recycling industry in China."
The world looks to China
Scrap dealers around the world are counting on Chinese demand to make recycling profitable. The country, for example, is a big customer for Ranjit Baxi, who runs the UK-based waste trading company J&H Sales International. Baxi is also a board member of the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), an umbrella body of recycling companies worldwide.
"Where China was importing half a million tons of paper before 2000, today China is importing 30 million tons, says Baxi, whose forthcoming book Recycling Our Future is about the global recycling business. "At the same time, China's collection of waste paper within China was very low previous to year 2000, but today I could well estimate that China is collecting domestically close to 50 million tons."
Baxi says more than 80% of the items buried in landfills could be recycled instead. Recycling a ton of paper, he notes, saves 30 trees, 26,000 liters of water and over three cubic meters of landfill space.
But demand from China will have to improve in order to make prices worthwhile for traders of recyclable waste like himself. And in the meantime, China is becoming stricter about imports of waste paper.
"China is considering controlling the amounts or volumes of recovered fiber imports or import licenses that they're issuing to the paper mills," he says. "So they're trying to reduce those licenses or control those licenses."
With weaker demand for waste, Beijing waste collector Liu Aiguo says he's also been forced to become more choosy about what he buys from the ladies who line up every morning with their carts of waste on Dongzhimenwai.
But he says China still needs to recycle waste, so he'll keep buying.
Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.
PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?
In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.
This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.
Addictions to sex and social media
Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'
Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.
No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.
Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image
According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.
Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.
Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.
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