Saturday, September 14, 2013

Waste not

This pile of bikes can be found in a little alcove on the side of our building. It's right next to a grassy patch where we take Lucy Rocket to do her business. I noticed it right after we moved in.

Whenever I would see it, I would think about how sad it was that people would just discard their bikes in such a haphazard manner. I thought of it as a graveyard for rusted and unwanted bicycles. Bikes here are so cheap (seriously, a decent adult bike can be found for under $50 USD), it made me think they are almost disposable, and treated as such. 
One evening after dark, I went down and happened to walk past this little alcove and discovered the bikes were all gone. I figured the junk hauler had come along and loaded them up.
But the following morning I passed by once again, and all the bikes were back! As I was standing there, I watched a tiny Chinese woman ride her bike up and toss it on top of the pile. I paid close attention for a week or so, and discovered the bikes primarily belong to the day workers, the housemaids (ayi, pronounced ah-ee) who come each day to mind babies and clean houses and cook for the people in our building. As there is no convenient place to lock bikes up, they just toss them in a pile. I suppose it is both a deterrent from theft and a way to keep the front of our building from looking like a junkyard.
Though my initial impression was of bikes being discarded and disposable, I've noticed that everything here has a far longer usage period than other places. At the point where I'm ready to toss something out due to wear or disrepair, our own ayi will show shock at the waste, rescuing our cast-offs for a second life. Or third life, as much of our household goods and appliances came from other departing expats, who probably got them from still other departing expats. 
I hear a lot about waste in China, especially industrial waste. But when it comes down to the consumer level, there is such a small amount of waste. Even the communal trash bin on our floor which serves two flats is no larger than a kitchen waste bin. We brought our large kitchen trash can from Macau, and finding trash bags to line it has been nearly impossible. When I do find them, I stock up like crazy.
I'm trying to be mindful of this longer-than-normal shelf life for consumer goods, especially as the season is changing and I'm starting to put away my summer things and pull out my cooler weather clothing. I look at these clothes I feel like I've worn and worn for over three years, some of which are actually showing wear, and think about how they'd have long been retired to the Good Will or Salvation Army if we were in the States, replaced two-fold to fill up American-sized closets. Though feeling sick of just about everything I own, I hesitate to get rid of anything, knowing how difficult it is to replace with appropriately-sized (and reasonably priced) clothing here in Shanghai.
I've changed much in this area. At least I can see progress anyway. I won't be darning socks and sewing my own undergarments anytime soon.
And where do we store our own bikes? Same place everyone in a high rise building in Shanghai does, right outside our front door, locked to each other just to make it that much more difficult to walk off with them. Not that you can even get into the elevator to get to our floor without a key card, but it helps me sleep at night.
Now let's talk about how many plants I keep killing... pretty wasteful indeed!


  1. This is exactly where we kept ours when we lived in a highrise, although we didn't lock them up. We had key cards as well - you had to scan once for access to the outer lobby, once for access to the elevator bank, and then again to make the elevator work - and on top of that, there were CC cameras everywhere. It's strange that there's so much security in the buildings, because the crime rate in all of Korea is absurdly low - this is, hands down, THE safest place I've ever lived! As far as consumption goes - everything here seems to be very well cared for and used well beyond the typical US shelf life - to the point where things look unsafe to my WEstern eyes (yet people seem to survive without major injury.) Curious to hear about your trash situation (so pitiful, my interests these days.) Korea is SOOOO intense on recycling (small space, lots of people) that we have a highly complex trash/recycling/food disposal system, complete with color-coded bags. It definitely cuts down on waste!

  2. Do the ah-yi's retrieve the same bike they rode in on? What if it's at the bottom of the pile?

  3. Ms Caroline, I'm working on something about the crazy way Shanghai recycles, but I need more photos! Stay tuned!

    Matt M, I have no idea! I wonder the same exact thing. I've caught people twice extricating bikes from the pile, but both times they were near the top. They removed the bike on top of the one I assumed was theirs, removed theirs, and then tossed the other one back on top. It's not a big space, so I can't stand back and take a photo without being noticed. I'll keep watching though!


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