In “A Beijing Recycler’s Life”, a short documentary by Chen Liwen, Ma Dianjin and his wife which have been recyclers for 14 years explain how they live on Beijing’s trash. They work every single day from 7 AM to 11 PM. The only break they have is during Chinese New Year when they take 10 days off.

“If the junk dealing is suspended for just 10 or 20 days, let me tell you, Beijing would explode,” says Ms. Ma.

In China, there are thousands of people like Mr. and Ms. Ma working in the informal recycling sector. Some of them collect and buy recyclables at a fixed place, while others pick out waste from dust bins and sell it to recycling markets outside of the city. The trash is then sent to other recycling companies. Along with government-funded waste incinerators, this is how China has been trying to solve the mounting piles of garbage following the country’s rapid GDP growth. But street recyclers might have an unlikely competitor—China’s most popular social platform WeChat.

China is today the world’s biggest trash generator—it produces 500,000 tons of garbage each day. Much of it still ends up in oceans or dystopian-looking junkyards like the ones besieging Beijing. Despite government efforts to set up incinerators throughout the country and its plans boost the recycling industry to $434.8 billion by 2020, the amount of trash produced daily in China is expected to reach almost 1.4 million tons daily in the next 8 years, according to World Bank estimates.

Chengdu-based Aobag is one company that wants to help solve this problem. All you have to do is register on their WeChat account and make a small donation.

“An authorized user will get a new Aobag from a recycling site nearby and take it home,” Aobag’s founder and CEO Jianchao Wang told TechNode. “The recycling site can be any place with 2-3 square meter spare space, like a coffee shop or clothing shop in the community. If you recycle at home, fill the bag, then drop your Aobag at the site. You will get an empty bag in return and we will take the trash back to our sorting center. Finally, the user will get a cash reward sent to their WeChat account.”

Aobag founder and CEO Wang Jianchao with his daughter. Image credit: Aobag
Aobag founder and CEO Wang Jianchao with his daughter (Image credit: Aobag)

A similar solution for businesses is being offered by a company called Stupid Brother (笨哥哥) which connects recyclers with supermarkets, offices and other enterprises through their official WeChat account. The company enables them to cut the long and opaque chain linking the two sides.

Of course, these aren’t the first Chinese companies trying to tackle the country’s waste problem with mobile tech. The last several years have seen a number of recycling apps popping up, such as O2O platform Recycling Brother (回收哥) and B2C app Taoqibao (淘弃宝). But aside from well-established used electronics platforms such as Aihuishou (爱回收) that have taken over the most lucrative recycling sector, recycling apps in China have been struggling to lure more users. WeChat may help cut logistics costs for recycling companies, but will it motivate more people to recycle?

One of the reasons recycling apps never took off is that recycling is still mostly done by the older generation who see it as a way to supplement their meager pensions, instead of environmentally conscious young people. This points to a bigger problem of low awareness of China’s trash problem.

The lack of a major institution for organizing recycling is another issue. China has, until recently, been one of the world’s major trash importer, highlighting how big the recycling business is here. The industry has created many shadowy vested interests while failing to address local issues.

“The general public realizes the necessity of recycling as they see more and more environmental issues and they want to do something about it, Wang said. “The central government also wants to set up a sustainable recycling and waste system, but they just don’t know how.”

WeChat has so far proven to be a platform with impressive reach, as well as a powerful business tool in helping innovative recyclers spread the message of environmental sustainability. However, without stronger support from above, it may not that much more effective compared to the Mr. and Ms. Ma’s of China in tackling the dark side-effects of China’s rising consumerism.

Masha Borak is a technology reporter based in Beijing. Write to her at masha.borak [at] Pitches with the word "disruptive" will be ignored. Read a good book - learn some more adjectives.

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