Beijing Recycling Program Turns Bottles Into Subway Rides

beijing recycleForget your reusable bottle at home this morning and find yourself towing an unwanted plastic bottle? If you are in Beijing, you are in luck — you could trade in that empty bottle for a subway ticket.

“Reverse vending machines” in subway stations around the city allow riders to deposit polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles in exchange for a commuter pass or mobile phone credit. Donors receive 5 fen to 1 yuan (about 16 cents) for each PET bottle, depending on its weight and composition. Incom Recycling, which is owned by Asia’s largest PET processor, Incom Resources Recovery, first introduced the system to Beijing subway stops in late 2012, with 10 machines across the city. The company has since expanded to include 34 machines, and it plans to install as many as 3,000 across the city, according to local media reports.

The machines would seem like a great way to encourage recycling in a city of upwards of 20 million. Except that Beijing doesn’t have a plastics recycling problem — it already has a 90 percent recycling rate for PET bottles, above most cities around the world. This is not because recycling is a regular behavior in Beijing (or the rest of China), but because there are countless migrant workers who pick through the city’s waste and collect plastic bottles, which are then processed and repurposed by large companies like Incom, or at one of thousands of small recycling workshops.

Incom intends to use the machines to bypass informal collectors and earn additional revenue from the machines in the form of advertisements, according to a 2012 story by the Guardian. As Shanghai-based author and Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter has remarked, in contrast to the West, recycling is more of an economic activity than an environmental pursuit in China.

The United States is the largest generator of recyclable waste, producing about 130 million tons each year. About 40 percent of that is shipped to China and other countries for processing into raw materials.

Image credit: Incom Recycle

Lauren Zanolli

Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and

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