Consider this: Three years ago, bicycle-sharing didn’t even exist in China.

By the end of 2017, more than 40 companies were offering their own brightly colored bikes. The biggest operator, Ofo, had 2.2 million bikes on the streets. That’s more two-wheelers than the population of New Mexico.

Thousands of brightly coloured bicycles placed on city streets by bike-sharing companies were impounded in Shanghai earlier this year. Photo: AFP

With little more than a smartphone, you can hire a bike for as little as 15 US cents and then leave it anywhere you like.

Welcome to the sharing economy, with Chinese characteristics. But, as Brook Larmer points out, the term has become a misnomer -- it really now just means “any short-term rental of a product or service activated by a smartphone.”

Sensing the opportunity, companies are rushing to jump on on the sharing bandwagon any way they can, with everything from toilet paper to umbrellas. But that’s not all...

Toilet paper

A man tries out a facial-recognition toilet paper dispenser at a toilet in the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing, China. Photo: Reuters

Free toilet paper is scarce in public toilets in China, and it tends to go missing. To counter the theft of toilet paper, authorities in Beijing recently launched a machine that uses facial recognition to dispense a 60-centimetre section of paper every nine minutes. So naturally, one analyst reports hearing a unique pitch: An app to share toilet paper, one yuan (US$0.15) per roll. Here’s hoping that you get to buy the toilet paper instead of actually sharing it.

Umbrellas

A new umbrella-sharing company has got off to a stormy start with most of its 300,000 brollies going missing in the first few weeks of operation. Photo: Handout

Startup Sharing E Umbrellas wants to expand rapidly, with plans to roll out 30 million umbrellas across the country. The problem? They’ve already lost 300,000 umbrellas. There was no penalty for an unreturned umbrella, which may be a factor. 

Folding stools

A man using a shared stool in Beijing. Photo: China Daily Weibo account via CNBC.

Folding stools have also started appearing on the streets of Beijing. As with the umbrella startup, the enterprise has already reportedly lost half of its stools. As one user points out: "If I just sat on the stool without scanning, how would you know?"