Review: The City Recycled: The Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Post-war Beijing

Discard Studies has created a new resource page for dissertations and thesis related to the field. The partial review below is taken from Dissertation Reviews, a relatively new online publishing venue for freshly minted research (we highly recommend new graduates submit their work). If you would like your or your advisee’s dissertation on the Discard Studies resource page, please contact max.liboiron [at] with the citation and link to its online presence.

Shih-yang Kao’s dissertation on demolition waste in Beijing provides rich material for scholars interested in the players involved in urban-rural discard commodity chains. While post-demolition waste was considered a resource for both socialist (1949-1978) and reform era (1978-present) governments, The City Recycled: The Afterlives of Demolished Buildings in Post-war Beijing narrates how values of waste shifted for each period, as well as how it continues to shift under different present-day policies, geographical locations, regional and local economies, and stakeholder groups.

Shih-yang Kao compares how demolition waste was treated in the socialist and reform eras. In the period after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the end of the socialist period in 1978, the byproducts of demolition was not considered waste, but was termed “demolition materials” (chaichu cailiao) and “old building materials from demolition” (chaichu jiuliao) (p. 19). Buildings and walls were actively mined for materials by government bodies for industrial and public urban state projects, keeping the “waste” within the city center. Kao uses government municipal documents and news articles to show how demolition waste was re-termed “building garbage” in the 1990s during the reform era and, after the rise of environmentalism, seen through a logic of “over accumulation” in the city as it modernized. This new concept of waste meant that it was expelled from the city to the rural peripheries. Thus, differing concepts of waste result in different geographies of waste.


In discard studies more broadly, construction and demolition waste is often overlooked as a significant form of municipal solid waste. In China, it accounts for forty to sixty percent of urban waste (p. 6). Yet, because of the make-up of demolition waste, and because of its intense density within demolition sites, it has a different economy than the rest of municipal or industrial solid waste. The second, third and forth chapters, each with a different combination of waste materials, sites, laborers, and government policies, are meant to bring entire networks into discussions of scavenging and recycling, and to complicate the division between rural and urban economies. Kao perceives a lack of network analysis in scavenging and recycling literature, and responds by taking the entire city of Beijing and its rural periphery as an interconnected site, bound together by the transformation of waste by profit-driven economies. Methodologically, then, the work keeps company with others who use a commodity chain approach to look at how economies are built through a network of relations. Additionally, the chapters of the dissertation are organized according to different materials within demolition waste, and this categorization results in slightly different economies emerging for each material, highlighting the role materiality can play in commodity chain methods and geographies of waste.

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