Can Littering Be Good for the Environment?

All foreigners, and an increasing percentage of Chinese, are appalled when they see a Chinese person drop a candy wrapper on the ground or toss an empty plastic water bottle out the window of a car. I was certainly no exception when I arrived here.

Over time, however, I’ve begun to wonder if I’m not looking at the issue through the wrong lens. As much as I deplore litter I wonder if, in the case of China, anyway, litter doesn’t lead to the elimination of litter and a whole lot more actual recycling.

A popular picnic spot in Beijing.  One thing I can assure you.  When people go home for the night there won't be a single piece of litter to be seen.
A popular picnic spot in Beijing. One thing I can assure you. When people go home for the night there won’t be a single piece of litter to be seen.

One thing is for certain. If you throw an empty plastic bottle out your car window someone will pick it up and sell it to a recycler. Guaranteed. There are millions of people all over China, many of them elderly and incapable of doing much else, who ride their bikes around all day looking for those discards.

But what if the number of discarded bottles all of a sudden decreased by half? Where is the tipping point at which it is no longer practical for people to ride their bikes around looking for discarded plastic?

And what happens to the bottles, albeit fewer in number, that no longer get picked up because no one is rummaging around the countryside looking for them? And what of the rummagers?

Do they downgrade their lifestyle? Can they, as a practical matter? And if not do they not become more of a financial burden to society? And how does society pay for that cost? By burning more coal and exporting more steel?

You could put recycling bins in all public gathering spots, of course. (And they actually have them) But then you’d have to pay a guy with what is, undoubtedly, a big personal carbon footprint, to drive around in a big diesel truck and empty all the bins. And what would he do with them?

See the man in the white cap?  He's a scavenger.  He's collecting plastic bottles and the Chinese that I've witnessed are not offended in the least.  They're happy to help.  And the ground is spotless.
See the man in the white cap? He’s a scavenger. He’s collecting plastic bottles and the Chinese that I’ve witnessed are not offended in the least. They’re happy to help. And the ground is spotless.

Would they really get recycled or would they just end up in a landfill as happened in New York City a few years back when they actually stopped recycling all of the recyclables they were collecting because it wasn’t economically attractive. They were actually making the environment worse by having a separate collection for ‘recyclables’ that were just going into a landfill but environmentalists argued that they didn’t want to break people of the habit so it was a short term loss for a long term gain. Fair enough.

If you have a family picnic at a public park in Beijing someone will ultimately come through and ask you if you have any empty plastic bottles to give them. Like asking for spare change. And the Chinese, from my observation, are more than tolerant. Despite a reputation for not being particularly charitable they seem quite cooperative to me. I’ve seen many people rummage through their things to see if they have any empties to give to the old man or woman.

Sometimes they even go out of their way to help. I’ve seen walkers stick an empty bottle in the crook of a tree so it would be obvious to the scavenger who was sure to come by.   They could have thrown it under a bush where it might still be sitting today.

And since they have such an efficient collection system and their cost to do everything is cheaper anyway I am quite confident that the Chinese recycle a much higher percentage of their packaging and such than virtually any other country in the world. They just have a knack, and a need, for squeezing the copper out of every penny.

And like any business, the scavenging business has its own issues of leveraging fixed costs. If you stop your bicycle to pick up an empty plastic bottle and there is a candy wrapper sitting next to it, you will pick up the candy wrapper as well. The candy wrapper is worth far less to the recycler (who is perhaps the local government) than the bottle, but you are already there. You are already bending over to the get the bottle. So in the end all litter has been removed. Not just the most valuable litter. (I point this out because many places in the U.S. have bottle deposits that are attractive enough to cause someone to pick up an empty beer bottle beside the road. Doubtful, however, they will pick up the empty fast food bag sitting next to it.)

When they want to clear an existing building in order to build a new one they typically just go in and knock the old one down and leave it for a few days. A couple of husband and wife teams will surely come in straight away and haul off all of the bricks that can be used again. And somebody else is sure to come in and reclaim all of the scrap metal. It’s a specialized business, recycling, so it’s not uncommon at all to see a relatively good-sized army of people picking over a building that has just been knocked down.

Vehicles like this are common in Beijing.  But they would never be declared "street-worthy" (i.e., legal) in developed countries like the U.S.
Vehicles like this are common in Beijing. But they would never be declared “street-worthy” (i.e., legal) in developed countries like the U.S.

And when they’re done, of course, the contractor will ultimately come in with a couple of diesel machines and scoop up whatever is left, which is generally not much. And even that probably gets used to make asphalt or some such thing. Even the smallest economic return is instinctively pursued here.

None of this would ever happen in the West, of course. The lawyers and insurance companies would never allow it. Think of the liabilities involved if a scavenger got hurt on your torn down building site. And the government wouldn’t let you anyway unless you filed all of the proper paperwork and paid the appropriate FICA tax and such.

It is a conundrum, isn’t it? I actually feel guilty now that I still can’t bring myself to throw my empty water bottle out the window. Whom might I be depriving of a decent meal or some economic purpose in life? Who do I think I am anyway?

I’m pretty sure that the carbon footprint of your average lawyer, or your average politician or insurance company, for that matter, is a scale of magnitude larger than the Chinese scavenger trying to scrape a little extra retirement money together.

I wonder what would happen, in fact, if littering were legalized? Think of all the energy consumed and carbon emitted making all of those ‘No Littering’ signs. There has to be millions of them in the United States alone.

And all of those citations written on paper that ultimately came from trees, by policemen and women who probably leave their cars idling nearby and whose radios are consuming electricity and certainly propelling the carbon footprint of some company somewhere that makes them in the first place.

And what if we eliminated garbage collection altogether and just told people to throw it in the street. I can’t begin to fathom the carbon footprint of the garbage collection industry in the United States. Think about it. The trucks. The uniforms and their cleaning. The trash receptacles themselves.

Would trash just pile up in the street? Would disease eventually wipe out whole communities? Would our quality of life deteriorate to such a point that innovation and hard work come to a standstill?

In this case the government is paying, but picking up litter is a respectable profession if you really believe in the importance of maintaining a clean environment.
In this case the government is paying, but picking up litter is a respectable profession if you really believe in the importance of maintaining a clean environment.

Or would people finally get serious about recycling? Or better yet, do without the things they really don’t need in the first place? Would developed countries actually produce less garbage? Or create new cottage industries to keep kids occupied with something other than video games and give them a chance to earn a little pocket money now that there are no newspapers for 12-year-old boys to deliver anymore.

Isn’t it true that the harder you try to change people’s behavior the less impact you sometimes have? “Go ahead, live like a pig. Litter all you want. You want personal liberty; go ahead. Have it all.”

This, of course, is not for me to decide. I can, however, tell you this. Yes, you will find scenes of filth in China, particularly in the rural countryside. In general, however, you will find the streets and parks of most cities in China to be far cleaner than your own despite the lack of social pressure not to litter.

What if we eliminated garbage collection?  Would we die of disease or change our ways?
What if we eliminated garbage collection? Would we die of disease or change our ways?