Rubbish & Recycling: China’s attitude to litter throwing: Xiamen, Fujian Province, SE China

It’s the first day of my holiday in Xiamen. Set on the East Coast of the Fujian Province, this coastal city is a well-known holiday resort having a steady influx of visitors throughout the year. Being that I haven’t been near the sea in years, the first port of call is to head immediately for ‘Golden Beach’ and get in the water ASAP. Hell yeh! As the sun quickly starts to burn my skin, the intoxicating smell of the sea air, the cry of sea gulls and the smooth rhythm of the waves form a blissful cocktail of familiar sensations.

Charging into the water though, my joy comes to an abrupt end! After only few feet in, the discovery is that I’m standing up to my knees in a warm soup of rubbish consisting of plastic bags, bottles, toilet paper and condoms; it’s quite honestly one of the most disgusting things you will ever feel and I am in it! The sensation of the bags wrapping themselves around my legs in the water is quite a strange one. It’s almost like they have an intelligence of their own. Though no sea life is present, the carrier bags are in a variety of colours; red, blue, white and the occasional black bin liner. No wonder there isn’t anyone else in the water. Swimming is impossible!

Falling into an immediate depression, I decide to go for a walk along the beach, letting the waves cover my feet in a bid to try and forget about it. No sooner than I begin though, a couple go by throwing down a plastic bottle right next to the water’s edge; AAAAAAAGH!

Infuriated by this total lack of regard for the environment, I call over to them
“Hey, nǐ de píngzi diàole!” (You dropped your bottle!)
“Oh xie xie, xie xie!” (Thank you, thank you!) says the guy, embarrassingly picking it back up as if it was a mistake. With arms folded I watch them walk off, maintaining a fixed glare in their direction. Sure enough, a minute later, he looks over his shoulder, no doubt to check if I’ve gone so he can throw it back down. This goes on for another three times until he’s near enough to a bin, where I assume he is actually going to deposit it. Amazingly, he still throws the bottle on the floor next to the bin instead!

Teaching English as a second language, one of the topics that comes up every month is the environment. Strangely, in terms of interest, this is something that many students struggle with. Often, regarding litter, most scratch their heads wondering what all the fuss is about, after all, “people are paid to clean it all up” I’m frequently told.

Sadly, even in the big cities, rubbish collection is woefully inadequate. Take Beijing for instance. With a massive population of well over twenty one million (almost a third of the population of the UK) and still boasting post-Olympic modernisation, its waste management falls way-short. Every district has only a small HQ with around twenty tiny pedal power dust carts; tricycles with a blue box on the back. Every morning you will see them in formation, the street sweepers donned in fluorescent day-glow orange vests with their brushes lined up at the back ready to go.

Having said that, recycling is massive in Beijing. As there is no real welfare system, if you are out of a job then you can always spend your day collecting useful waste material then taking it down to the local recycling area. Nearby, the Qingyuanli recycling street goes on all day and well into the night. People must spend days collecting huge sacks of plastic bottles, polystyrene, cardboard, old electrical goods; the list is endless. When their rickety three wheeled contraptions can take no more, the collectors will cycle a painfully slow journey across town to get their stuff weighed and sold. For many this is a way of life and it’s not like they have a difficult time finding anything!

The fact of the matter is, that once you are out of the Central Business District area, expect to see rubbish absolutely everywhere including overflowing bins that have long since deposited their contents out onto the street or park. It can get really windy in Beijing; the ‘da feng’ (big wind) is a well-known current that blows in from Mongolia, kicking up dust and rubbish everywhere. You can live on the fifteenth floor and still see carrier bags go by your window. People don’t wear dust masks purely as protection from pollution, it’s also to keep out the detritus that spirals around with the air current.

A small park sits out the back of my apartment. Its fences act as a trap for any bit of rubbish that gets blown its way. After months, a loan street sweeper finally rolled up her sleeves and took it on. Three cart loads later, she hadn’t done a bad job really and once again you could see the grass. Sadly though, she had left the half ton of rubbish that had entwined itself, still fluttering away in all the trees and bushes. I guess collecting litter above head height wasn’t in her job description!



14 replies

  1. Now YOU have a very descriptive writing style. I felt like I was actually there. When I visited China to teach a while ago, I was both shocked and intrigued by the litter culture. I couldn’t grasp the concept even though it’s “someone’s job” to clean it all up. And even when the garbage collectors would be on the prowl I couldn’t help but think that it would be much easier if everyone threw their trash in a receptacle vs. the street. Siigh.


    • Hi UnrestingSea
      Thanks for your kind words. Yes right! As a Westerner I think most of us can never get used to the way people throw their rubbish down on the floor in China. It still amazes me how someone can live with so much litter blowing around and piled up all over the place. I guess you are used to it if it’s around you your whole life. Maybe its just in the suburbs of the big cities and small towns – Either way there sure seems like its everywhere!

      Nice to hear from you and keep in touch

      Be Lucky UnrestingSea



  2. Andy, Shengdong and Milanda loved the beaches here in RI. No wonder, if their beaches in Xiamen are filled with detritus. Have you returned to Xiamen in the past year? Is there any hope the garbage situation and attitudes will change?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya Clare. Nice of you to drop by. Actually one of the topics I teach is the environment and I always ask about the beaches around the country. They assure me that the water is clean at a lot of other beaches and you can get in the water. However, you wont stop anyone throwing rubbish down over here though it’s something I can never get used to in places of beauty. Sorry to answer your question negatively. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve occasionally seen people in the US with this kind of nonchalance toward littering. It always baffles and irritates me. Perhaps in China people feel they are providing a job for those who clean up their messes. But what about the mess that doesn’t get cleaned up? In trying to understand this, I wonder if people who have very tidy homes would wonder how I can live with my piles of magazines, but eventually, I will put them in the recycling bin. Thank you for having the courage to speak up about littering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there Joanne > Nice to hear from you and thanks for following. Very happy to follow back. I am sure that their homes are very tidy. I think that every time I clean up the mess in my classroom before I start my class every day ie the last teacher and students left a ton of rubbish everywhere blaaaagh. Where I live is particularly bad for litter. I guess you kinda get use to it (kinda)


  4. I needed to take a shower after reading about you in the sea with used condoms swimming around you instead of fish. Oh, my gosh!! You write very well, Andy, and your photos really add to your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya there Rose > Yes it was a complete gross-out and such a let down. I can still feel the disappointment now after all these years. Thanks for dropping by mate and cheers for your words of encouragement. Have a brilliant weekend 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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