“You can catapult your old belongings, and a big bag of money lands on your hand. How easy that is.”This is the latest advertisement from the website Baixing running on Shanghai subway screens. Baixing is an online barter platform owned by eBay. In Chinese, baixing means “commoners”.
As a designer, I strive to create objects that are simple and timeless—classic products to be used forever. But after living in China for half a decade, I have not found that philosophy here.
Another online favorite, DianPing, offers reviews on any topic that might concern Shanghai residents: the city’s best-kept gossip, places to eat, group discounts, shopping tips, and, of course, countless “mistake” purchases up for barter. These online platforms offer channels for easily ridding oneself of products. There’s no guilt in buying something one minute and getting rid of it the next, all from the comfort of your home.
In a 2009 study on Chinese media consumption, we found that readers stopped purchasing print magazines because the two inches of beautiful glossy paper brought with it light resale value—and heavy guilt. But this phenomenon arose from the demand side: When readers purchase a magazine from a newspaper stand, they want it as thick as possible. Thicker equals more content. More content for the same price equals value. Hence, Chinese Elle is at least four times thicker than a Finnish Elle. But when it comes time to dispose old issues, the dated titles retain almost zero resell value. Because it is difficult to resell or reuse, consumers thought twice before buying.
In contrast, it is easy to pick up an iced fizzy drink to quench one’s thirst on a hot Shanghai noon and toss the PET plastic bottle into the bin without hesitation. Unlike magazines, this humble bottle has its suitors. In Shanghai, a sophisticated hierarchy of rag pickers runs the recycling game. The lowest-level rags pick barehanded—elderly who pop their heads into trash bins, spelunking for discarded bottles. Others cruise around on their tricycles ringing bells jerry-rigged from old kettle covers to buy unwanted bottles at CNY 0.10 (USD 0.02) each.
These retired elderly are sustainability angels, halving the trash in bins by pulling out Styrofoam boards, packaging boxes, soda cans, and cooking oils to trade them for cash. But at the same time, it makes the process of consuming an extra disposable bottle seem innocuous. No guilt accompanies the act of tossing.
What most Shanghai residents don’t see are the piles of collected bottles gathered and sent to informal recycling centers in rural areas, typically a local entrepreneurs’ low-cost setup. Every part of the bottle is separated: cap, label, and bottle. Workers sit among the bottles, unscrewing each cap off, slitting off the label and sorting by shape and color. Hands hurt most for unscrewing thousands of caps each day. Designed to be user-friendly, the ribbed feature on the cap ironically causes the most pain on the laborer’s thumb. When we fail to see how much effort is put into disposing a humble bottle, we continue to consume and dispose.
The attitude towards “throwawayism” differs among generations. Older Chinese from the 50s and 60s treasure and repurpose their objects. They are from the generation when China began to open its borders to the world, and color televisions, refrigerators, and rice cookers were objects of desire. They were precious. The older generation does not understand the rapid technology advancement of the iPhone 4 or 5, nor the rationale behind bartering away a new laptop.
My seamstress repurposed an unwanted newspaper stand to be her thread stand.
My fruit seller used a tree branch to replace the broken feet of his stool.
My neighbor used unwanted steel sheets to make a three-square-meter extension from of his fourth-floor balcony.
There is a beautiful traditional trade in ancient China. Chinese craftsman can stitch back a broken ceramic cup with a hand drill and threads, producing an artifact more beautiful than the original. But this is a disappearing trade, as it requires graceful skills, patience, and years of apprenticeship. With these traditions of restoration falling out of fashion comes greater appreciation for the disappearing craftsman who fixes broken objects.
The repairman who replaced ribs of my broken umbrella.
The aged couple at the corner who patiently mended thread by thread the tiny holes on shirts.
Chinese youth of the 80s and 90s continue to reject their past and look towards the future. They adopt “international” style and dislike traditional furniture. Antiques are too country bumpkin. Said one respondent to our study, “Using a repaired object is humiliating. No one does it these days.”
Meanwhile, at a design conference earlier this year, a Swiss prosthetist-turned-furniture-designer Jonas Merian turned up. For the past year, Jonas has been treasure hunting for unwanted flooring and furniture from demolished Chinese homes. With his craftsmanship in prosthetics, he upcycles Chinese tables, water dispensers, and wood planks into objects of desire. A new life for unfashionable goods.
But for most, modern homes are too tiny to store old broken appliances and furniture. No one has learned how to fix them. The craftsmen are disappearing. The government is encouraging internal consumption to rely less on exports. Online commerce allows delivery to your doorstep—the next day.
And hey, if you don’t like it, catapult those wrong purchases away. It’s that easy.