China’s changes to recycling didn’t happen overnight. We track back to how and why China’s approach to waste affected the US and Australia, and how it inspired nations across south east Asia to follow its example to reject contaminated waste exports from Western nations.

A new four category waste system has been brought in to China’s second most populous city, and with it a deluge of headlines about surveillance, social credit and high-tech garbage bins. We find out what’s really happening, and meet someone who mapped the massive unofficial recycling system that was already in place.

“Most people in America, the U.K., western Europe thought 'Oh I'm recycling in my green bin, my blue bin, my whatever bin and magic'. Well actually, 'magic' meant… traders would sell those materials to Asian countries - by and large China.”

In 1997 Hong Kong and Taiwan took two very different paths to disposing their trash. One of them involved an instantly recognisable English folk song. The other created a sub-class of elderly people, called ‘cardboard grannies’. We meet people at the frontline of recycling, facing some tough decisions.

The world is embracing a new approach to recycling, but there’s a handy new app that’s causing a brand new tsunami of single use plastic both in China and the west. What are we going to do with all this plastic? We look at the cause and also what some of the solutions might be - and find a link between what we’re throwing out and what we want to put on our plates. How can the recycling solution also be part of answering the question of food security? 


Laurie Chen

Series producer and script:

Jarrod Watt

Script research, Hong Kong field recordings & additional production:

Lisa Harding

Shanghai field recordings:

Yang Yang

Malaysia field recordings:

Tashny Sukamaran


Yuki Tsang, Joe Kainz, Dayu Zhang, Ryan Swift, Gigi Choy, Albert Han  & Bonnie Au

Supervising producers:

Laura Warne & Daniel Kwan