Scavengers solved Beijing’s trash problem for years, but now their business is fading

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/21 19:38:39

Big Chinese cities like Beijing still lack an effective official garbage sorting system. Instead, thousands of tons of reusable trash are recycled by an army of scavengers. While making the cities look clean, these migrant workers haven't seen their livelihoods improve over the decades, and economic pressure is forcing many to quit the industry.

A man pulls recycled plastic bottles in Dongxiaokou village on the outskirts of Beijing. Photo: CFP

A dilapidated tricycle passes through a backstreet Beijing alleyway, piled high with the flotsam and jetsam of modern consumer life, cardboard, Styrofoam and plastic bottles. On the side of the tricycle, big characters are written like a poster, reading fei pin hui shou - waste material recycling.

Follow this small, slow vehicle as it trundles through the city and you'll travel through the capital's prosperity and concrete expanse, entering an unseen world, the kingdom of recycled waste.

Just as depicted by Hao Jingfang in her latest Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel Folding Beijing, it is an underground "third space" of the city, parallel with its modern urban districts.

Proposals for the government to sort the capital's trash were first raised in Beijing as early as the 1950s. But even today, it hasn't been seriously enforced. Last year Beijing generated 7.9 million tons of garbage, most of it ending up in the more than 400 garbage sites scattered around the city.

Every day, thousands of scavengers climb up and down the mountains of garbage to collect recyclables. Beijing's recycling depends on this army of migrants from outside of the city, numbering around 160,000. They handpick and sort the reusable materials before sending them to recycle centers to sell for a few dozen yuan.

The Zhou family is one unit in this army. More than 20 years ago, Zhou Shouyi, now 68, arrived at a garbage site near Beijing's South Fifth Ring Road and began his life as a scavenger.

The family is originally from a village in Fuyang, East China's Anhui Province. As an orphan, Zhou didn't have land to farm so he made a living building houses for others. In the late 1980s, he lost his left leg to a falling tree. Desperation drove the family out of the village and they decided to try their luck in Beijing. The couple has four children - two twin daughters, one girl they adopted after Zhou's younger brother wanted to abandon her, and a son that was born in the city.

They came to Xihongmen to work on a massive landfill in the area. Over the years of urban development, the area has seen a number of new residential compounds and a massive shopping mall with an Ikea store inside. The city has transformed itself and millions of people's lives have changed for the better but not most of the scavengers like Zhou.

Zhou built a makeshift house among the hills of waste out of pieces of metal, wood and bricks he collected, and welcomed his son to the world in it. Almost all the things in their home were thrown away by someone else, including their clothes and some of their food. If he is lucky Zhou occasionally brings home some expired yogurt for his daughters. He also likes collecting plastic flowers to decorate their humble home.

The army of recyclers started to mobilize in Chinese cities in the late 1980s. In Beijing, they are mostly farmers migrating from rural provinces like Sichuan, Henan, Hebei and Anhui. They congregate together with their fellow countrymen and compete for recycling resources with others.

This industry has created moguls out of entrepreneurial early birds like the "king of glass" and "king of plastics." Later they established their own large-scale recycling stations, renting thousands of square meters from village committees around Beijing to sort scrap metal, paper, plastic and glass.

Few such recycling stations are registered with the industry and commerce administration, and water pollution is common. Nevertheless, their existence saves the government millions of yuan every year in waste management.

Wang Weiping, deputy chief engineer of the Beijing Municipal Urban Management Authority, has been involved in management of garbage for 40 years. He said during the city's People's Congress earlier this year that there are 13 factions of recyclers in Beijing, occupying 82 recycling stations on the outskirts of the city, each accommodating about 2,000 households of recyclers.

The "Sichuan faction" is the largest, followed by the "Henan faction." The large number of people means fierce competition, so they have set up their own strict rules and divided the city up into different areas of trash control.

In the earlier period, their work was totally unregulated. According to Wang, in 1997, more than 70 percent of public security breaches were committed by scavengers and recyclers. They not only recycled, but would also steal and rob, taking away manhole covers, railings and even electricity wires.

At that time, competition could become nasty among the regional factions. Wang organized meetings of the factions, and helped them establish rules about which faction covers which area. As a result, the Sichuan faction is allowed to scavenge through garbage centers, the Henan faction collects recyclables directly from residents, and the Jiangsu faction is in charge of retrieving waste cooking oil, among others.

Zhou doesn't know any powerful Anhui people in Beijing. Due to his disability and his wife's poor health - perhaps due to their unsanitary living environment - they decided that staying away from the factions is a better idea. Trying not to breach the rules, every day Zhou, wearing an artificial limb, cycles around residential areas looking for scattered recyclables. Entering communities is a breach of the rules and he also has to pay a fee to the local environment administration. The thousands of garbage centers of Beijing's residential communities have been franchised by the garbage moguls.

Life on the edge

The work of the recyclers contributed to China becoming the world's biggest market for recyclables. According to data from the National Development and Reform Commission, almost half of the copper, more than half of paper and about 30 percent of the aluminum processed in China in 2013 were imported from the US and Japan as waste.

Despite the money involved in the industry, for Zhou, it's another story. Even sending his children to school is a big issue for him.

While Zhou has a shaky grasp on written Chinese, his wife is illiterate. They have no household registration and earn little money from trash collecting, certainly not enough to pay for their children to go to school.

It was not until 2002 when the dean of a migrant worker's school heard about them and admitted all the children without asking for tuition fees, did they receive some education. But soon afterwards, the school was shut down.

In 2009, Zhou's wife, the twins and his son Bingjie went to Huangguang, Hubei Province and rented a house near a school. Bingjie was accepted into Huangguang Middle School and the twin sisters started working.

As the twins only have an elementary-school education and no work experience, it is hard to find stable, legitimate work.

First, they called each individual advertisement they could see and tried working in all sorts of migrant communities. They hung calendars, printed books, wrapped cosmetics and cleaned supermarkets. They tried making pancakes on a mobile stall but the carts were too heavy for them. When their peers shouted "Chengguan are coming!" they had to abandon their cart and run from the urban management officers.

In 2011, the twins got their first official job inspecting electronic units at a factory in Daxing district. The factory is situated in a remote area and doesn't even have heating in the winter. They worked 12 hours every day for a salary of 1,600 yuan per month.

The job brought them unbearable pain. The younger sister Bingqing developed an ache around her waist and after spending 3,000 yuan at a hospital, she decided to quit.

Her elder sister developed an eye problem, which caused her eyes to ache and she has partially lost her eyesight. 

Fall of industry

Before the 2016 Spring Festival, Bingqing took a few days off and helped her father collect recyclables for the last time. A day's hard work translated into 100 yuan and Zhou Shouyi knew right then that the industry is no more.

In Zhou's view, 2003 to 2008 was the best time for trash collecting. In recent years, the government  has started eliminating large recycling factories. Starting from 2015, manufacturing demand has decreased a great deal and price of recyclables has gone down.

"We have contributed our energy to this industry and now they are kicking us out," Zhou told

Outside the Fifth Northeast Ring Road there used to be a village full of people from Henan.

In its prime, the yard had tens of thousands of trash collectors and took on one fourth of the city's entire recycling.

A man surnamed He worked in the village for more than 10 years and witnessed the entire industry rise and fall. Bottles used to cost 15 cents each and now it's 5 cents. Fifty kilograms of glass is sold for 20 yuan nowadays. Wood is 5 cents per kilogram.

He and his workers joke, "Now we collect trash only for exercise."

Some experts are worried about the trash. As these industries exit Beijing, the quantity of trash just sitting in dumps will go up immeasurably in the city and pose an issue in the future.

The twins don't know what they can do. it's impossible to make a living collecting trash now but they have few other choices.

Right now, they are working at a fast-food restaurant. Their focus is to make enough to pay for their younger brother's tuition, which is 16,000 yuan per year. But they cannot imagine where their own children will go to school and live in the future.


Newspaper headline: On the scrapheap

Posted in: In-Depth

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