Thanks to a growing public recycling scheme in Beijing, subway riders no longer have to swipe a credit card or scrounge in their pockets for loose change when their transit passes need refilling — a bunch of emptied plastic soda and water bottles will do just fine.
In cooperation with the city government, recycling firm Incom has begun installing additional plastic bottle-to-subway credit reverse vending machines in stations across Beijing’s vast, city-owned metro system which is the oldest in mainland China and the second longest in the world, second only to Shanghai Metro. The scheme was first launched to some skepticism, in 2012. MNN's Robin Shreeves also wrote about the program in 2013 while it was still in its pilot phase.
When polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles are inserted into the machine by a commuter, a credit, usually between 5 and 15 cents, is added to the their rechargable transit pass; built-in scanners detect the type and weight of the plastic to determine its value. The bottles themselves are crushed and sorted by color and type by the machine right there on the spot.
In addition to adding money to their transit passes, commuters also have the option to earn phone card rebates by trading in empties through the machines.
As reported by The Guardian in 2012, Incom hopes to eventually install 100 of the incentive-based kiosks across the Beijing Subway's 17-line, 232-station rapid transit network. With the recent expansion, a total of 34 new machines have been installed. Many of the machines are located in/near Beijing Subway stations with heavy tourist foot traffic.
Although it does have clear environmental benefits, the initiative wasn’t launched purely to boost Beijing’s already-high PET recycling rates (150,000 tons of plastic bottles are recycled in the city annually).
Rather, Incom aims to essentially eliminate the middleman which, in this case, are cart-pushing plastic bottle scavengers from whom the firm buys recyclables. The machines would allow Incom to bypass the collectors and procure empty plastic bottles directly from the public while generating additional revenue from government subsidies and advertising displayed on the machines themselves.
But will expanding the trash-for-subway fare scheme work? Will the new machines put bottle scavengers out of business?
That still remains to be seen. Plastic recycling in China is a rather complex activity that has traditionally revolved around eagle-eyed bottle collectors (there are estimated to be between 500,000 and 2 million in the country) who roam the streets plucking empties from the trash. Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based blogger and author of “Junkyard Planet,” relayed to The Guardian that scavenging for recyclables and selling them to firms such as Incom could very well be the China’s second most popular profession behind farming.
Minter believes that in order for the scheme to work, the new plastic bottle-to-subway fare machines will have to pay out a competitive rate for the commodity. "In the west, recycling is seen as a green activity. In developing Asia, it is an economic activity. One thing is guaranteed. If donors are not paid market price, it is not going to work."
A single ride on the Beijing Subway cost a flat-flare of only 2 yuan or about 32 cents in U.S. dollars.
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