China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

China’s Hidden Environmental Lessons

China’s environmental troubles are often decried in the Western press, and generally there is a good basis for the articles’ conclusions (See the NYT ‘s “Choking on Growth” series). Still, China and its people also have a lot to teach foreigners about prudent energy conservation and consumption.

Although China may not have the best energy efficiency utilization (see EIA numbers), the country’s prior poverty inspired its populace to adopt some surprisingly environmentally-friendly policies.

Person-Driven Policies

The Chinese consumer, to conserve cash, often makes due without unnecessary perks that are common for Westerners. Chinese consumers, by doing so, save thousands of dollars and millions of watts of electricity.

– Natural Drying Clothes    (Live Naturally)

Many Chinese do not use electronic driers 烘干机. Instead, Chinese clothing dries in the wind and sun. This method of drying works great for clothing, not so well for bedding or woolen materials. Still, if one owns a spare bed-cover or wool jacket, then natural drying works perfectly. Most clothing dries within twenty-four hours.

Forgoing driers saves China millions of watts of electricity each year.

– Human-Powered Recycling     (Capitalist Environmentalism)

Although the recent US economic recession greatly increased the number of lower-class entrepreneurs wandering city streets collecting recyclable trash, the Chinese long ago perfected the art of scavenging. In China’s cities, from Beijing to Chengdu, poor and retired people seek plastic and aluminum to recycle.

In every city, poor entrepreneurs dart hither and tither, snatching empty plastic bottles from hands and scavenging from trash cans. Although each plastic bottle only results in a few jiao of cash, China’s poor act as guardians of the environment- ensuring that not even a plastic bottle, crushed and covered by garbage, escapes recycling.

Entreprenurial Recycling in Beijing

Entrepreneurial Recycling in Beijing / China Comment

Also of note, from 2003: Amusing complaints that people are not sorting their trash. Perhaps the people decided trash-sorting was unnecessary because they knew the city’s unofficial garbage collectors would likely scavenge the trash before the municipality’s collectors arrived.

– Air Conditioning Only When Necessary     (Waste Not, Want Not)

Chinese restaurants save millions of yuan each year by only turning on air conditioning units when customers actually utilize portions of the restaurant.  Many Chinese restaurants have both a common dining room and a selection of private dining “party rooms.” Each party room often has a space heater or air conditioner that is only turned on when the room is occupied.

– Heating When Necessary      (Think Global, Act Local!)

Chinese often huddle slightly cold in some restaurants and most universities, wearing jackets and scarves tucked in tight. Although restaurants and universities have the ability to heat their common rooms, the proprietors and deans choose to keep thermostats turned down. These proprietors understand that by refraining from over-heating buildings they can keep down costs.

In contrast, American universities spend millions on heating and cooling each year. All their spending results in higher carbon output and higher student tuition costs to pay for heating and maintenance overhead. American universities and campus environmentalist activists can learn much from Chinese students’ stoic endurance of slightly uncomfortable weather.

– Hotel Lights   (Use Only When You Need)

Chinese hotels slash unnecessary electricity bills by only allowing patrons heating, air conditioning and light in their rooms if the patrons are actually present in the room. Rooms’ lights only turn on if a room key is placed in a wall socket unit. American budget hotels could save thousands of dollars by implementing similar conservation-inducing practices.

– Hot Water, Not Bottled   (Reuse!)

Although bottled water sells well in China (at 0.8 RMB it’s a great bargain), Chinese are just as often likely to be seen toting hot water in plastic containers. Although the process of warming water to a boiling point consumes electricity, the use of reusable plastic containers cuts down on disposable water bottle waste.

– Solar Water Heaters   (Self-Sustainability)

“China has a cumulative installed capacity of solar water heaters (SWHs) that surpasses 90 million square meters (m2) of collector area—roughly 60 percent of the world’s total. In fact, nearly one in ten Chinese households owns an SWH.” (from pg 11)


Government Driven Policies

– Plastic Bag Revolution   (Pay For What You Consume)

China attempted to reduce plastic bag consumption in summer 2008. In July, a ban was imposed on ultra-thin bags. Thicker bags could be sold, but major cities’ supermarkets and department stores were supposed to charge 0.3 to 0.5 yuan per bag (Xinhua, July 2, 2008).

Bans on free plastic bags are popular in some places in Europe and a few American cities, but have yet to permeate America wholesale.

China’ Comment’s July 4, 2008 article on Plastic Bag Entrepreneurs


Later, China Comment hopes to post other environmentally-friendly measures practiced in China. If you know of any other energy-saving lessons that China can teach America and the “West”, China Comment would be glad to hear them.

19 January, 2009 Posted by | China Environment/Health | , , , | 1 Comment

Isn’t that Odd?: Plastic Bag Entrepreneurs

China has long been a country of entrepreneurs, from its urine merchants, to the indigents who walk around recycling plastic bottles and aluminum (they are ubiquitous, despite some efforts to remove them, both high and low tech [The former is an electronic recycling machine; the latter, a poignant transcript of a UK special on a “clean up” of homeless who make a living collecting plastic bottles]), to the proprietors of hundreds of mom and pop shops.

What follows is an amusing prediction for this week’s Isn’t That Odd.  If you’re in China and you see this happening, please post here- I’m asking my contacts to look out for this.

I predict that China’s new plastic bag policy is going to create a new wave of self-employment for their urban poor. Why? Well, first, let’s examine the policy:

1.) A National Policy Designed to Reduce Plastic Bag Waste
The policy of charging for plastic bags (at .2-.6 yuan), and phasing out the ultra-thin bags will hopefully decrease waste as people begin toting canvass and bamboo bags to the stores. However, some problems have been realized due to this policy, as a recent Xinhua article examined; ranging from vendors who are still utilizing the ultra-thin bags, to others who are not charging for bag usage.  “At a small grocery near the Carrefour, the shopkeeper still offered customers free plastic bags. As he said: “I sold vegetables worth 0.7 yuan. How can I charge 0.5 yuan for a bag?”

Other problems include:

It is more difficult to tote canvass bags everywhere when one goes outside. Penny-pinching people have to plan before going shopping, instead of previously being able to use free store-supplied plastic bags or to purchase new canvas bags at the grocery.

Also, at markets, fish-sellers now wrap fish in newspapers instead of inside plastic bags. This causes newsprint to leak onto the fish, which makes the food untasty and unsanitary. And places where the plastic bags are still used have suffered problems of people grabbing extra bags to use for private purposes- creating a shortage at some stores, as the Xinhua article goes on to explain.

Consequences: Depending on how much of a price these plastic bags might be oversold at, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Chinese entrepreneurs standing outside stores, selling and undercutting the stores’ prices for plastic bags. They might grab a few extra bags when they are in the stores, they might repurpose previously-used bags, or they might (if they have some capital) go to a manufacturer and purchase bags in bulk.

If you’ve ever read Carl Crow’s venerable 400 Million Customers, you know how hardscrabble the Chinese can be in seeking out entrepreneurial opportunities.

My favorite tale of Mr. Crow’s (he wrote in the 1930s but his words are still relevant and amusing today- and inspired another informative book- James McGregor’s One Billion Customers.) is how Crow organized an ad promotion with a US manufacturer who wanted to introduce a better brand of soap (I think-I read the book a few years ago so my memory is slightly hazy) in Chinese stores. The manufacturer gave stores free soap samples to hand to their customers.

A month later, the manufacturer was quite upset, because brand awareness hadn’t increased. So Crow went to investigate. He found the stores and discovered several problems.

1.) Many stores were selling the “free” samples; because they figured it didn’t matter if one brand of soap was more popular than another; because they weren’t in the business of selling soap, consumers could buy their soap anywhere so giving soap for free would do nothing for their store! (They didn’t believe they could build store-brand loyalty with customers by giving something away for free- see point 2). And by selling the soap (cheaper than other brands), they could gain extra money that their neighbor stores wouldn’t get and could still win a little customer loyalty since customers would be glad that store A offered better prices!

2.) If something was free, many customers figured, it must be lower quality, or spoiled. So they didn’t want to take free samples. Only the poorest of the poor took the free samples, and they couldn’t afford to purchase this expensive soap anyway, so the marketing tactic fell flat!

 Oh, China- such an Odd and wonderful Capitalistic place.

4 July, 2008 Posted by | Book Review, China Business, China Environment/Health, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment