One almost ubiquitous feature of Chinese urban areas1 is the little old lady with a broom. She doesn't carry just a broom; she also carries a dustbin on a pole, the sort that flips up when you lift it. I've never figured out if they wear uniforms, or if they all just seem to share the same fashion sense.

If you ride a subway to the end of its line and dawdle, getting off after everyone else has surged out, you will doubtlessly witness a little old lady with a broom get on and sweep up the detritus left behind by previous passengers. When you get off and you're eagle eyed, somewhere on the platform you'll see the little old lady with a broom, sweeping up random bits.

The first time I was in China, I spent a bit of time in an office building. People in the office would smoke right outside of the back door. When I first entered, I had noticed the people smoking outside. The first time I went out back to smoke, I finished the cigarette and looked around. Nowhere in sight was there an ashtray or a trash can. Also, I couldn't find where other people were disposing of their butts, as there were none on the ground. I asked someone where I should put my cigarette butt, assuming there might be some designated trash can inside, not wanting to make some office smell like stale smoke mouldering in a cotton filter. I was informed "Just throw it anywhere, someone will take care of it." With a level of awkwardness and the very faintest tinge of culture shock, I put the smoke out on my boot and carefully laid it on the ground. It was as though the deliberateness of my action made up for littering in a way that a casual flick would not. The next time I was outside, it was gone. All the butts were gone. After repeating this ritual several times, I finally saw that there was a little old lady with a broom that circulated, who would have been out of a job by simply installing appropriate trash receptacles.

At least, in theory she would be out of a job. If you're ever in a large pedestrian mall with ample 3-purpose recycling/trash/ashtray units, sit down and watch what happens in the 20 foot radius circle around one of them. Give it about 10 minutes. If you don't want to drop the money on a ticket to Beijing, let me tell you what you will see:

  1. Some percentage of the people putting their cigarettes into the cigarette disposal, their recyclables in the recycling side and their non-recyclables in the trash side.
  2. Some percentage putting all three into the trash side.
  3. Some percentage of people throwing any or all three classifications somewhere in the vicinity of the unit.
  4. Some percentage just shedding litter willy-nilly, as though they had candy wrapper dandruff.

While the little old lady with the broom will take care of the last two, what about the second option? Do major Chinese cities really do single-stream recycling?

At this point, I would like to introduce you to little old lady with a broom's cousin, Guy with a trash bag2. During those 10 minutes of you watching that public garbage unit, you almost certainly saw guy with a trash bag, maybe a few of them, you just might not have twigged to what he was up to. Guy with a trash bag is looking for recyclables. Plastic, aluminium, etc. He's the base of the Chinese recycling pyramid3. He's looking to fill up his bag and sell it at a recycling center. Above him in the pyramid are more sophisticated recyclers that deal in larger quantities. You might see them riding a bike with an 18 foot mound of styrofoam strapped to a trailer, or out hustling for broken electronics. Guy with a trash bag is the one that might hover around for a second when you're almost finished drinking a bottle of water.

When the Chinese taikonauts returned from successfully docking with an orbiting module, they were plastered all over the news. Frankly, it was wonderful that the Chinese space program was proceeding so quickly, and I had a few conversations about it. A big part of the press was about the mission including the first female taikonaut to go into space. Someone made a wisecrack, hoping that the first female taikonaut wasn't a little old lady with a broom, doing an EVA with a dustbin to clean a few things up.

Out of curiosity, I decided to check out a nouveau riche dance club/bar. After Gweilo Smashing the metal detector at the door, I got to the bar and was instantly pinned down by the crush of humanity. The place was absolutely packed. Being quite tall, I could see pretty much everything going on. After the dubstep DJing gave way to a Chinese fellow with a mohawk rapping and singing while a pair of Ukrainian girls wearing tight gold pants danced on stage with him, I honestly thought my experience couldn't get any more surreal. That was when I noticed a little shuffling in the foot traffic near me and looked down. Even at a fancy-pants nightclub, there she was. A little old lady with a broom, cleaning up the litter of the well dressed young people.

1: Look, I am so incredibly not an expert, at all, but this node would be nearly fatally tedious if I hedged everything, over and over again. So let's all just agree that I'm talking out of my ass aside from my personal experience. Yes? Yes.

2: I'd point out that unlike sweeping, collecting recyclables doesn't seems to be limited to a gender or demographic. The only group I haven't seen rummage for recyclables is younger women, but that may well have been based on the areas I've been in.

3: I'm vastly oversimplifying recycling in China, for the purpose of illustrating another group who are omnipresent but largely invisible. There's books and books to be written about recycling in China, I assume.

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