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Beijing commuters pay with plastic (and there are no credit cards in sight)

By Rachel England Friday 17 January 2014

Plastic bottles

A new initiative in China’s capital Beijing is putting a whole new spin on the phrase ‘paying with plastic’. Instead of whipping out credit and debit cards – or even cash – to pay for their subway journeys, commuters can now pay with plastic bottles.

Launched last year, the scheme allows commuters on Beijing’s busy subway line to insert plastic bottles into special recycling machines, in exchange for money off their fare. The bottles are then crushed to a third of their original size, and sorted according to colour and type.

Recycling

It’s not yet clear how many machines will be put into operation – the pilot programme used ten – but Liu Xuesong, deputy general manager of Incom, the company running the scheme, says that they plan to install 3,000 such machines across the city, eventually expanding to other subway lines, schools, residential areas, bus stops and shopping malls.

A single recycled plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60 watt light bulb for six hours, so it’s clear the material is turning into a valuable currency. Plus, Incom hopes that by collecting plastic bottles directly from citizens, the scheme will help reduce both the amount of plastic rubbish discarded on streets every year, and the amount of money spent on the costly task forces required to retrieve it. To put this aim in context, figures from the Clean Air Council show that California spends an astonishing $25 million every year simply transporting plastic bags to the dump, and $8.5 million collecting them from the streets. So it’s no surprise that officials are keen to cut out the expense of the middle man!

However, critics have suggested that the machines won’t contribute a huge amount to the environment due to the energy required to operate them and the fact that the process used to recycle the bottles may degrade the quality of the recycled product – an argument indicative of different global attitudes towards plastic. According to Shanghai-based blogger Adam Minter: “In the west, recycling is seen as a green activity. In developing Asia, it is an economic activity.”

Nonetheless, the initiative is proving popular with commuters and curious tourists alike, and despite apprehensions, could indeed pave the way for similar schemes elsewhere – an environmental win even if green elements are a secondary consideration.

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