Having spent the last 2 weeks in Chongqing, China’s fastest growing industrial city, I realise on returning to the UK last week just how cosy and indolent our western economies have become. China is a powerhouse of making and doing, whilst we luxuriate in our undemanding jobs, manipulating imaginary paper wealth whilst ignorantly squandering natural resources in our disposable consumer society.
It is forecast that some 300 million Chinese will join the middle classes this decade. This is in addition to China having the fastest growing urban population in the world. The pressure on Chinese cities and their economy is phenomenal, but they are preparing for it. Our guidebook to Chongqing, published in 2011, lists only one metro line. We arrived to find that they already have four, with seven anticipated by 2015! Compare this with the 20 plus years it has taken to get London’s Crossrail underway.
But it is not just the phenomenal rate of development that I believe will set China apart, it is their culture of conservation and re-use.
Walk down a street in any Chinese city and you can find people who can repair, re-purpose or recycle just about everything you can imagine, from building materials to mobile phones. Demolition sites are immediately picked over for re-usable materials and you can find plenty of trade in recovered reinforcement and plywood shuttering from concrete. Cardboard packaging is collected from high street shops and carried off in huge bundles by little old ladies.
All the litter bins in public places, not just on the street, but out of town too, are all segregated for recyclable and non-recyclable, as you would find in Germany or other more enlightened Euro countries. On corners throughout the cities you will find the street cleaners sorting and packaging up the waste from the litter bins for re-use or recycling.
With a street food culture such as China’s you would expect to find large quantities of disposable food containers in the litter bins. However, you will also find people collecting the containers, clearly for re-use. One might question the hygiene implications of such a trade, but it is unquestionably avoiding substantial quantities of plastic going to landfill, reducing the costs of packaging for the food businesses and providing a subsistence income for the recyclers.
This culture of avoiding waste has clearly grown out of necessity. However, if this culture can be retained and nurtured, particularly in relation to Chinese manufacturing industry and the emerging middle class then there is no question that it will result in a fully developed economy that is far more resource efficient than we can boast in the West.
Whilst we in the West merely debate the principles of a circular economy, the Chinese live and breath it. The disposable consumer culture of the West is simply not for them, and long may it remain so.