Beijing Has Developed a Brilliant Way to Solve a Major Environmental Problem


Beijing may have the most mind-blowing and innovative solution to a major urban problem: subway machines that accept plastic bottles as payment.

The novel idea has been in place since 2012, when operating firm Incom introduced more than 100 ATM-like recycle-to-ride machines at various stations. Commuters get 5 to 15 cents on a rechargeable subway pass per every bottle.

Zoom in: Beijing produces 200,000 tons of plastic bottles a year, according to CCTV news, a lot of which ends up on the streets picked up by informal bottle collectors, also known as plastic-bottle scavengers. The Guardian estimates that China has anywhere between 500,000 and 20 million collectors who make money by finding bottles, piling them onto bikes or carts and then selling them to companies that recycle them.

Incom hopes that giving citizens a place to discard polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles will curb the city's litter and help the environment, while creating revenue from government subsidies and advertising on the machines.

Zoom out: Littering is a worldwide problem. Nine billion tons of litter fill up our oceans each year. America alone produces 1.9 million tons, which is more trash than we generate annually (250 million tons).

Making matters worse, $11.5 billion is spent on efforts to clean up discarded trash left on streets, in the oceans and across the industry overall. Fast-food waste is the most common litter, taking up 33% of the total amount. Paper makes up 29% of litter and aluminum makes up 28% of all ill-properly discarded products.

The takeaway: Litter is corrosive. It ruins our oceans, neighborhoods, ecosystems and wildlife. It is expensive to clean up and deal with, and it can be completely avoided. The Incom devices are just the beginning of the solution.

Beijing's implementation of recycle-to-ride machines are an impassioned approach to contain litter. It sends a strong message about how one idea can radically change the way we do things and help our environment. And it is a jumping off point to catalyze change everywhere with novel ideas to benefit the big picture both now and in generations to come.