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From Street Litter Picker to Recycling Vending Machine: An Authentic Look into Recycling in China (1/2)

by Philix & Keris

26 January 2024

🌏🔄 Recycling garbage is more fun than you think! This week, we delve into the dynamic world of environmental recycling in China. From the early days of skilled workers navigating through streets to the modern era of intelligent waste bins, we've seen remarkable transformations. But what drives these changes? It's a blend of cultural nuances, user behavior, and evolving market trends. Our latest article (Part 1 of a 2-part series) highlights the journey from basic recycling habits to advanced, incentive-driven systems. We uncover key insights into consumer preferences for convenience, immediate rewards, and social responsibility. These findings are crucial for brands aiming to align with today's environmental consciousness. Join us in understanding these trends and crafting strategies that resonate with consumers, fostering a sustainable future.

#RecyclingEvolution #Sustainability #MarketInsights #CulturalTrends #EnvironmentalResponsibility" Inspired by our cool and pioneering project on recycling with Cliff Fawcett and Jade Zhu

Sustainability, or often associated with ESG, is certainly one of the hottest buzzwords and subjects in the public discourse and in the business world. The concept can sometimes seem abstract and detached from average Joe's life. On the other hand, "recycling" and "waste management" are more related to daily life to most Chinese, who often equate the daily 'chores' to the intercontinental "superstar" ESG. Whether ESG or recycling, consumer's growing caring and supportive sentiment towards the environment have been becoming increasingly prevalent in news and brand communications, creating new waves of marketing campaigns and product innovations in China. Although a lot are still led by government initiatives, we have begun noticing both global and local brands tapping into this space in China market. 

In this article, we will take you through the Chinese recycling journey through our personal lenses, while examining the status quote and future opportunity spaces for going sustainable and ESG in China. 

First, here is a historic recount of Recycling in China. 

1.0 Era: Instilling Recycling Habits

In the bygone era, the image of skilled litter picker traversing narrow streets on tricycles laden with bundled cardboard, flattened plastic bottles, and even discarded appliances was a common sight. Their distinctive calls, echoing "Recycling: old color TVs, old computers, air conditioners, washing machines..." served as reminders for residents to contribute to waste collection. This method, combining financial returns with a sense of purpose for discarded items, laid the foundation for recycling habits among Chinese citizens.

Some litter pickers would regularly go to certain communities to collect waste, which had made the nearby residents gradually accustomed to handling household waste at fixed collection points.

This had been the way most ordinary Chinese people were familiar with dealing with household waste.

2.0 Era: Evolution of Environmental Recycling Habits

As society progressed, the surge in industrialization and resource demand necessitated a paradigm shift in waste management. The implementation of waste sorting initiatives, beginning with Beijing's 1996 pilot program, escalated with the nationwide plastic ban in 2008, culminating in Shanghai's mandatory waste sorting in 2019. This period also witnessed the expansion of recycling beyond traditional street workers to include governmental, corporate, and nonprofit entities.

In 2019, professional recycling companies began to enter the end-consumer market. For example, companies like Aihuishou started placing recycling machines in communities, allowing residents to recycle independently. Thanks to the innovation of internet technology, these recycling machines set up at the doorstep of homes have indeed improved the recycling process to some extent:

  1. Placed at the community's doorstep, they are convenient for people to recycle, increasing the ease of recycling.

  2. The cumulative weight recycling model allows people to reduce the accumulation of waste at home, enabling cumulative recycling.

  3. Transparent and uniform pricing lets residents clearly understand the rewards they will receive for participating in recycling.

After actual visits to some recycling points and understanding some users, we found that although there are different types of community recycling systems, such as the government-led Hushang Recycling, internet company recycling machines, etc., we discovered that these recycling mechanisms still have room for improvement in actual operation:

  1. Capacity limitations and low cleaning frequency: Residents often report that when they take recyclables to the machine, they can only recycle part of them because the machine is almost full, and the rest has to wait for another time. However, they often find that after several days, the machine is still full. This gradually reduces the recycling habit that residents have developed.

  2. Scattered reward points system: Since recycling points are not present in every neighborhood or community, residents often find no recycling point near their homes, or the recycling points are located far from home. Some brands set up recycling bins in their stores or specific shopping malls, meaning users need to save recyclable products of that brand and then take them to a designated place for recycling. This intermediate process can deter many users.

  3. Lack of attractive recycling mechanisms: Some recycling machines use a points system, where points are accumulated through recycling and then exchanged for items, requiring a long-term accumulation before receiving a reward, or the exchangeable items lack practicality. These 'non-immediate incentive' mechanisms can reduce the frequency of recycling by residents."

Hushang Recycling Vending Machine

2.5 Era: Maturation of Environmental Recycling Systems

Examining a long-standing waste-sorting community in Beijing's Xicheng District, we observe key factors contributing to its sustained success:

  • Ample waste bins strategically placed every 5-6 meters.

  • Unified trash bags distributed through card swiping, rewarding proper waste sorting.

  • Integration of intelligent waste bins, offering residents points for every recycling instance.

Simultaneously, educational institutions incorporated waste sorting into their curriculum, leveraging academic credits as an effective incentive.

Government sponsored education and propaganda campaigns on recycling.

Our Observations and Reflections

Upon refined analysis, three core factors emerged as pivotal in influencing consumer participation:


  • A preference for convenient and easily accessible recycling services.

  • Cumbersome processes or excessive effort reduce consumer enthusiasm.

Immediate Rewards:

  • Tangible and immediate rewards motivate frequent recycling participation.

  • Examples include monetary incentives, exchangeable goods, and academic credits.

Social Responsibility:

  • An increasing societal focus on environmental recycling.

  • Government policies serve as guidelines for individuals and organizations.

Unilever x Ant Forest Alibaba Tmall at School: Recycling vending machine 

Cultivating recycling habits necessitates time; however, the impact is evident. The plastic recycling rate in China, from the introduction of the plastic ban in 2008, has reached approximately 31% in 2022, showcasing the importance of policy-driven initiatives.

Brands and businesses can innovate and strategize based on the aforementioned factors to encourage consumers to participate in environmental recycling:

  • Provide Convenient Recycling Facilities: Concentrate on public spaces within communities, sports venues, subway stations, train stations, campuses, etc., to offer convenient recycling facilities, making it easy for consumers to recycle.

  • Reward Programs: Introduce more effective reward programs, offering consumers immediate and practical incentives such as points, discount vouchers, or gifts, making recycling more attractive.

  • Support Community Recycling and Environmental Activities: Brands can collaborate with communities or environmental organizations to organize regular recycling events like recycling days or contests. These activities increase consumer participation and interest, helping them gradually adopt recycling habits.

  • Education and Promotion: Brands can use advertising, social media, brochures, etc., to disseminate knowledge and information about recycling, emphasizing the environmental value and personal positive impact of recycling. Clear and engaging promotions contribute to raising consumer awareness about recycling.

  • Provide Simple Guidelines: Offer easy-to-understand recycling guidelines to guide consumers in correctly categorizing and handling recyclable items. For instance, brands can provide instructions and modification guides for recyclable packaging when consumers purchase and use their products.

By employing these strategies, brands and businesses can gradually cultivate consumers' environmental recycling habits and establish a more sustainable consumption culture.

In the next episode (2/2), we will keep on delving into the world of recycling in China by showcasing the both government sponsored and commercial brands' examples. These are actual sites and campaigns our people at Cube House Works have participated. Stay tuned in next week to learn what we think about these sustainability related campaigns!

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