Bike graveyards a sign of China's waste challenge
Bicycle-sharing dream has soured in China
Heaps of disused, abandoned bikes in graveyards around China’s cities show how hubris has soured the e-bike revolution. Photograph: AFP
Coded by colour, the bicycles piled high in the bike graveyard in Beijing are evidence of a boom turned to bust. The wheels, saddles, frames and handlebars illustrate the enormous waste problem that China faces.
The concept of scanning a QR code, then cycling off on a high-quality bicycle epitomised environmental friendliness, but the heaps of disused, abandoned bikes in graveyards around China’s cities show how hubris has soured the e-bike revolution.
A byproduct of China’s economic rise has been the problematic amount of waste created, and this is one of the reasons why China has stopped taking waste from overseas for recycling. Beijing alone produces 25,000 tonnes of rubbish every day.
The e-bike revolution is taking place all over the world, but in China it has been particularly popular, boosted by government subsidies.
Local media are filled with stories of a bubble bursting, as some companies have gone bankrupt during the e-bike wars, and these bicycle graveyards are scattered around China’s cities, in building sites and brickyards.
The market has been incredibly competitive and companies flooded the streets with millions of bikes, but the government had to create impounding yards to deal with the volume.
The build-up started on the street corners, then local authorities put the bikes into makeshift “bike graveyards” on the outskirts, near the car dealerships and commuter housing.
“This is such a waste and it causes so much pollution. We should really be asking ourselves about our responsibility as a community,” said Emma Zhang, 34, who works in human resources.
“The government should have controlled it better at the beginning. It’s not only the waste that this has caused now, but also many of us have lost our deposit and we will never get it back because those small companies are already gone,” said Zhang.
Part of China’s efforts to deal with the waste problem has been to introduce a ban on taking foreign rubbish. This has repercussions around the world – 97 per cent of Irish plastic used to be sent to China for recycling.
Lili, 30, lives at the East Sixth Ring Road on Beijing’s outskirts, but works near the Third Ring Road downtown.
“I am a big fan of bike-sharing because I live far from the city and need these bikes to get to the subway station, and also to ride around at the weekend,” she said.
“But it is such a waste, all those abandoned bikes. For operating in the capital, all they thought about was market share, they didn’t think about what to do with them afterwards. I heard the big e-bike companies like Mobike recycle the iron parts to make them into pots, etc. How about those small bike companies? They probably just leave it at the dumping site for ever unless the government gave an order,” said Lili.
On the Sina Weibo website, Cociz wrote: “The schools can fix those bikes and then sell them to the students at a low price, so we can solve this problem. The investors need to rethink what they have done or what could be done now.”
It’s not just the bikes. Another booming industry is food delivery, and this has seen a similar dynamic, with a large number of operators eventually whittling down to one or two big companies dominating a juicy market – Chinese consumers placed 10 billion orders for food deliveries online last year.
There are eight million restaurants in China, and about two million of these are delivering food by courier and this is set to rise significantly in coming years. The e-commerce giant Alibaba has a network of 400,000 delivery personnel.
The Meituan food delivery service had more than 300 million annual active buyers and its platforms combined handled nearly €50 billion worth of transactions last year.
Billions of white plastic food cartons are delivered every day by squadrons of couriers, each with an array of disposable utensils. Fruit and vegetables are delivered shrink-wrapped in cling-film that will eventually find its way to the growing archipelago of plastic islands bobbing around in the ocean. Which means that China’s waste problem will become the world’s problem.