Downstream Recycling

It was a computer-free weekend for me, thus no new entry until today.  Sometimes I feel like I spend too much time in front of the computer, since my job is entirely based on working on the computer and I have several projects (including this blog) that see much of my “free” time spent staring at the screen.

So this weekend, I opted to take a break from the computer.  I did all sorts of exciting things including making beignets, going on a long bicycle ride, and catching some sort of digestive discomfort.  Maybe I should have stayed in front of the computer, huh?

Anyhow, getting back into the swing of things, here is an entry based on some observations I made about recycling in the Big Mango:


When I first moved to Khrungthep, I was appalled by what I perceived was the lack of any recycling.  In fact, on my first trip back to the US, I filled one suitcase with large plastic water bottles (the 5-gallon size, cut in half so they could nest together).  It was only later that I discovered that recycling does happen here in the Big Mango, but it is so-called “downstream” recycling.  This means that I can throw my rubbish in the bin without a care in the world, and someone who makes much less money than I do, will sort it all our for me.

Since discovering that, I started to separate the items that were readily recyclable and place them in a separate bag or container, so they would be easy to find.  Also, all of my table scraps and vegetable peelings are put in a milk carton in order to keep the rest of my rubbish clean.

P1050787 But I didn’t realize just how much recycling is actually occurring until the other morning when I was up early.  There is a large condo complex, some thirty stories, kitty-corner to ours and three mornings a week the rubbish collectors arrive. 

Long before sunrise, they are banging around and making noise, but I never really saw what they were doing until one morning when we had the perfect convergence of factors: the sun was rising earlier, they were running behind schedule, and I was up extra early.

What I saw was eye-opening and gave me a much greater appreciation for the extent to which recycling does take place.

The rubbish collectors actually open every single bag of refuse and sort through them.  On the back of their truck are bags into which they sort just about everything that could be recycled: glass, plastic, newspaper, cardboard, etc.  All of the plastic bags – including the ones in which the rubbish was disposed – are collected for recycling.  It has to be one of the most unpleasant jobs I can imagine and one of the most labor intensive, too.

I shot some video of the process:

This just reinforces for me the importance of keeping my refuse as clean as possible.  It also makes a good case for using the shredder for any documents with personal information on them.


Reduce, reuse, recycling: the Three R’s that we’ve all learned are the cornerstone of environmental awareness.  Of course, there should be a fourth R preceding the others: rethink – as in, rethinking processes and systems so they are less consumptive of resources in the first place.

P1050822 It seems that “just saying no” to plastic bags has become the cause de jour all around the world.  Designer “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote bags are being sold for top dollar, supermarkets offer reusable bags, and t-shirts have been supplanted in the world of freebie giveaways by canvas and cloth bags stamped with promotional logos and environmentally feel-good slogans.

In January, Beijing joined the list of municipalities imposing some sort of ban or restrictions on the use of plastic shopping bags.  I was in Hong Kong at the time and read an interesting article about the ban in the South China Morning Post.  The article quoted Li Wei.  “I like the idea of limiting the use of plastic bags because it is a good think for society.” said the Beijing office clerk, “But why should I, a small citizen, bear the extra inconvenience?”

That quote leads me to wonder whether or not these types of initiatives are really that effective.  Do they really make a difference?  They don’t seem to actually change any of the fundamental behaviors of people.  We still drive too many cars, live in houses that are larger than we need, consume all sorts of things that are wasteful and extravagant, etc. 

200px-Earth-Hour-Logo A good example of questionable benefits was the recent “Earth Hour” – a movement to have everyone switch off their lights and electrical appliances for one hour the past Saturday evening. 

Maybe the value is more symbolic than anything else, but when there are official t-shirts for sale from the website, candlelight weddings and outdoor broadcasts by the Weather Channel using only LED lights, I’m inclined to view these efforts as gimmickry rather than anything meaningful.

Another very important point to consider is that some of these efforts are affected by the agendas of their sponsors, more so than honest goodwill and concern for the environment.  See this interesting media criticism by Andrew Bolt. 

As they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Maybe these types of events and actions are those single steps.  But until I see people in Western countries showing up at their city planning commission and saying, “Yes, I’d like more mixed-use, high-density development, please” or, “Instead of adding another lane to that freeway, why don’t we add bus rapid transit service?” then I’m going to be skeptical that we’re really rethinking the fundamentals of our relationship with the world around us.


13 thoughts on “Downstream Recycling

  1. Great post! That downstream recycling is amazing. I couldn’t imagine having to sort through every single bag of rubbish to separate the recyclables. That’s much easier on people than how recycling is doing in Holland. Here, you have to take all glass and plastic materials back to the grocery store where you bought them. Otherwise, it all goes out as garbage. I like the idea of saying “no” to plastic bags. That’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about living in both France and Holland. They do offer plastic bags at the grocery, of course, but I’d say that 90% of customers bring their own folding grocery cart and/or reusable bags. Here’s a link you might like if you haven’t already seen it:

  2. I agree with you Chris. Lip service is cheap and effortless. We need to act. Check out the website I found today. I was looking for someplace I could go to find out if a company promotion or advertisement is truely green or just joining the trend.

  3. I also agree with you. Great post. Very timely. Unfortunately some countries in the South East Asia, have no concept of recycling and helping the environment.

  4. You definitely bring up some important points. Yes Earth Hour was totally gimmicky but hopefully it will have educated more people about what needs to be done. I know lots of people who don’t even realize the basics. And I somewhat agree about the plastic bag trend. Perhaps governments should impose the amount of packing allowed for products, especially in Asian products. Gosh do they use TONS of packing and layers. 😛

  5. @brooklyn2028 – Oh, that’s the truth!  Simple example of over-packaging: I’ll buy a beverage (say, a smoothie) that is then put in a plastic cup with a lid.  Then the cup as well as a wrapped straw will be placed in a plastic bag so I can carry it.  So unnecessary.

  6. Good point to bring out the recycling issue and talk some trash too! LOLFYI, I brought my plastic+glass bottles to a recycling plant last week, did my share of saving the planet!

  7. Another important post Chris. The value of downstream recycling is beneficial not only for the environment but also for the local economy. Granted it is not the most glamorous of vocations, but it helps to keep money in the pockets of those who are unable to find more gainful employment. See you and Tawn in about a week or so.

  8. you would have seen more jobless people hanging around the city if there is no downstream recycling or other jobs that are unnecessary =)

  9. RYC: Thank you so much for the comment on the Flat Stanley post. I’m pretty excited about it and would love to send him for a visit in Thailand, but I have to return him by the end of the month. You’re very sweet for offering, though!

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