living and learning

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

GAW: Rags, riches, and alternative recycling

This post is part of the Geography Awareness Week series.
Topic: Sustainable Urban Areas

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There are no charity shops where I live. There are no vintage shops. In fact in all my 14 years of living there, I have never once heard of any car-boot sales or clothes swaps or Gumtree-esque websites.

It seems that Shenzhen, a city of 8.9 million people, lacks something fundamental - that is, accessible ways of recycling used goods.

Wait a sec - then how come we aren't swimming in old electric fans and mobile phones and issues of Reader's Digest? Where does all the stuff go?

To be fair, I do know of a second-hand market for household appliances situated in one of seedier neighbourhoods (that we are urged to keep out of). And every few years there is a 'help the needy' campaign where our unwanted clothes are shipped off to the rugged, poverty-stricken inland areas of China. Second-hand dealers set out sandwich boards on their street corner pitches. Oh and there's the small used book shop just down the street...and I've pretty much summed up the state of 'official' recycling where I live.

I would say that we don't have that much stuff to start off with. We don't celebrate Christmas, so unwanted gifts aren't a huge concern. Furthermore, 'gifts' usually mean either a) fruit, b) local/speciality produce, c) pot plants, or d) cash (disguised as a red envelope during Chinese New Year). None of these are going to hang around for long are they!

Then there is the waste collection system. Bar the filthy rich and certain foreigners, everyone lives in a flat of some sort. You leave your rubbish/unwanted items in a designated spot in the hallway, and each morning the cleaners haul them downstairs to the back yard for the dustbin lorries to collect. Usually they will sift through the pile and hold on to anything of value - broken appliances might be repaired and dusted off to be taken home; old books and papers are bundled up and sold to the book dealer; plastic bottles are painstakingly washed and crushed to supplement one's meagre income.

One man's rags are another man's riches they say, and nothing holds more true in a city where $1/day exists alongside $1000/day.

But surely you ask, after all the influence from the West, the denizens of Shenzhen have caught on and started bartering used stuff by now? No, it seems that second-hand stuff has never been fashionable and never will be. Back in 2007 I helped set up the Shenzhen chapter of Freecycle, but had to back out after a while due to other commitments - 3 years on, it's all but on its last legs while the 'alternative recycling' scene is still alive and kicking!

It's true that the Chinese like their things new and shiny. Buildings beyond a certain age are pulled down to make way for bigger, better, shinier ones (hence the lack of ancient architecture in China). House plants are thrown out as soon as the Spring Festival is over, whether or not the leaves have started wilting. Seafood has to be alive up to the point of cooking.

I cannot understand this craze for 'untouched goods' - in fact I adore vintage clothes and period homes! My mum says that used items are considered 'dirty', and second-hand belongings imply that either you are stingy or you can't afford new ones, a big no-no when 'prosperity' is at the heart of Chinese culture.

In conclusion: even though it's not that obvious, things are being recycled in Shenzhen, possibly even to a greater extent than in British cities. It just takes a keen eye to spot it out.


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