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The Garbage Army

As China attempts to impose a system of urban garbage recycling, are the informal waste collectors that have kept the cities clean for decades about to be thrown on the trash heap?

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Crushed bottles are stacked at a recycling center

There is a hidden army in every Chinese city. They have a keen eye for an empty bottle, and if they spy someone about to finish a drink, they stand patiently by until they acquire it. They crush it to save space, and then squeeze all the bottles into enormous sacks tied precariously one on top of the other to a much smaller three-wheeled tricycle. People marvel at the sight of the trikes, now more likely to have electric motors attached, wondering how the piles of Styrofoam boxes, strings of cooking oil containers and mountains of flattened cardboard boxes stay upright, as their owners, trash collectors and garbage recyclers, head every evening to a waste processing center to turn their trash into cash.  

Wang Weiping, an advisor for Beijing municipal government and an urban engineer, has studied garbage recyclers for 20 years. By his reckoning, there are at least 2.3 million in China earning a living from informal trash collection and recycling. While the work is dirty and arduous, stories of unexpected people engaged in the trade are common in the media, from university students to people raising money for medical care or funds to start a business. Rumors abound that there are riches to be found in other people’s trash.  

Given China’s population and the large amount of garbage produced daily, informal trash collectors filled the gap when cities did not have proper disposal systems, reducing government costs. They did the most labor-intensive work - collecting and sorting garbage. Now that China is putting government-led trash collection and sorting systems in place - to a greater or lesser effect - some say the informal trash sector will prevent the new system from working as it should. Others say there is still a place for this unsung army of waste workers, as they are the best placed to help the new systems operate. 

Trash into Treasure
Most people associate trash pickers with vagrants or those struggling to make ends meet. But some are successful at turning trash into treasure.  

“It’s easy money. I’d be silly not to do it,” said an elderly garbage collector surnamed Qi. Although she is retired and earns a pension, she sorts and collects garbage from the dumpsters outside her Beijing apartment block, as well as the others belonging to the 10 buildings in her residential community. She sells garbage that can be recycled to supplement her pension.  

“I mainly collect plastic bottles, Styrofoam, paper, clothes, furniture, home appliances and daily use items. I earn 5,000-6,000 yuan (US$735-882) a month. That’s twice my monthly pension,” she told NewsChina. 

According to Ma Ning, a former recycler in Beijing, people in major Chinese cities discard about eight billion plastic bottles every year, or 200,000 tons in total. However, due to the informal nature of the recycling business, there are no accurate figures for the amounts and types of waste individual garbage collectors process. Plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PET, which can be recycled, turned into polyester, and used in the manufacture of vehicles, electrical parts, home appliances, textiles and construction materials. A garbage recycling center buys waste plastic at 2,000 yuan (US$294) a ton, and if the plastic is presorted and preprocessed, the price may double or triple.  

Wu Xin, another trash picker in Beijing, told NewsChina that he collects waste Styrofoam for 1.5 yuan (US$0.2) per kilogram and sells it to recycling plants for double that. Although there are middlemen who eat into his earnings, profits are still good. Wu said the price for waste magnets had risen from 60 yuan (US$9) to 400 yuan (US$60) per kilogram due to the rapid price rises for rare earths.  

Wu told NewsChina that he and his wife bought a truck to collect and transport recyclables. Despite only being allowed to drive their truck at night due to Beijing traffic controls, they still earn 25,000 yuan (US$3,676) a month, nearly twice the average Beijing monthly wage in 2019. 

The owners of recycling yards may earn much more, as they also own processing machines. But they need to pay for rent, maintenance and set money aside to grease the right palms. Wu said, money is not the most important factor in running a recycling yard.  

Cardboard boxes are usually sold to paper mills, where they are recycled for raw materials

Spoils of Battle 
If garbage is the spoils for trash pickers, then trash cans are the frontlines of the war. The priority is establishing a good relationship with those in charge of the garbage bins and dumpsters. Qi told NewsChina that she had been able to “contract” so many garbage bins in her community because she bribed property management staff.  

“I treated them to two meals and sent them several cartons of posh cigarettes, and I also paid three years’ management fees in advance,” she told NewsChina. “It cost me an arm and a leg,” she added.  

For her efforts, she was also finally allowed to use part of the community bike shed where she can store and sort her garbage. 

Qi claimed that her privileges stoked envy from other garbage collectors, who took revenge by stealing her bicycle and destroying her already-sorted garbage.  

But these conflicts pale into comparison when it comes to the garbage cans along urban roads. Wu Xin told NewsChina they pay 20,000 yuan (US$3,077) every year to the people in charge of the road where he collects garbage. “It’s all under the table and we never get a receipt. But just because you pay doesn’t guarantee you’ll definitely get the cans - you have to find someone to help strike up a relationship with them, or you won’t even have a chance to pay them off,” he said.  

Wu said that one time he parked his truck in front of a residential building, only to be shooed away four times in five minutes by security guards, community management staff, urban management officers and other trash collectors.  

“They smashed the lights of my truck with metal bars and threatened me. They said if I came back, they’d beat me,” Wu said, adding that he was told that the garbage on that particular road “belongs to” a relative of an official. 

Individual trash collectors like Wu also have to pay the owners of stores or restaurants where they collect garbage. “Otherwise, they’ll sell it to other people,” Wu said.  

Ma Ning had to fight for his patch. “I didn’t want to ask my family for money when I went to university, so I targeted the garbage around our school, which was in a suburban area. To get sole access to the garbage, I had to beat all the others to make them go away,” he told NewsChina.  

Ma later returned to the garbage recycling industry, becoming famous for his informative livestreams about garbage sorting. 

Tricks of the Trade
Trash pickers have tricks to increase their earnings, such as hiding a bottle of water in a pile of empty bottles to increase the weight, or injecting water into a pile of cardboard. Wu said some try to hide a wooden door in a pile of cardboard. Or they mix low-value but heavy garbage with higher-value but lighter recycling. It is a fine line to tread.  

The best places to get trash are on vacant land in suburban areas or remote areas on the outskirts. There are always piles of garbage lying around, and at night as people sleep, these illegal garbage dumps become hives of activity.  

A garbage truck driver surnamed Wang told NewsChina that the dump he works with does not have any of the required equipment for pollution control, and its trucks are unregistered and use substandard diesel. But it has been there a long time and nobody seems to care how it is run. 

“I earn 15,000 yuan (US$2,206) a month,” Wang said. 

To make more money, many trash pickers connect with illegal factories which produce fake cosmetics, high-end alcohol, cigarettes and healthcare products, and even “imported” infant formula. The factories buy real packaging and reuse it for their fakes. It is difficult for buyers to tell the difference.  

In May 2017, a report published in Nature exposed a black market for fake research testing reagents in China where counterfeiters allegedly bought the empty boxes of high-quality, sometimes imported reagents from trash collectors and laboratory cleaners, who were often unaware of their intentions. The packaging was used to disguise cheap domestic products or fake reagents.  

Due to the large numbers and mobility of trash pickers, it is hard for local police to investigate these cases.  

“China’s household garbage disposal and recycling are managed by different departments and they have failed to effectively integrate data about recycled garbage from different sources... So there are a lot of uncertainties in measuring the recycling rate of household garbage,” Zhou Chuanbin, a deputy researcher at the Research Center for Eco-environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote in Chinese Journal of Environmental Management in 2018. 

A man sorts garbage at an unlicensed recycling center

Necessary but Stigmatized
Trash collectors have been the mainstay of the garbage recycling industry in China since the 1980s when the country began to embrace the market economy. But the large population, according to Zhang Jieying, a deputy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is emblematic of “dual stigmatization.” She wrote in her 2016 book The Life of Waste that trash pickers are mostly migrants already on the fringes of urban society, and as they usually deal with garbage on the edges of cities, they are further stigmatized as “being dirty, mysterious and dangerous.” 

For a long time, trash pickers were marginalized and remain outside any formal management system. They are a source of trouble for city officials. In a 2009 interview with the China Youth Daily, Wang Weiping, the Beijing government advisor, claimed that trash pickers in Beijing were involved in 72 percent of criminal cases and 72 percent of them have had infectious diseases. 

“They fight for territory, and the bosses of some trash picker gangs have even hired thugs. It causes public safety issues,” he said. “They are a population outside the public’s and government’s sight,” he added.  

Zhang said that many trash pickers and illegal dumps dispose of garbage without any pollution controls, harming the environment.  

In 2011, the State Council issued a document on establishing advanced waste processing and recycling systems, encouraging small- and medium-sized enterprises to engage in garbage disposal, and demanding standardized management for individual trash collectors.  

In 2016, the State Council issued another document on upgrades for waste recycling, which called to make full use of smaller recycling enterprises and individual trash collectors.  

These documents, however, were mostly ignored. In a 2020 report on trash pickers before and after the country rolled out compulsory garbage classification and sorting measures, Chinese data analyst Dataway pointed out that current measures in cities generally target residents, communities and sanitation workers but overlook individual trash collectors and the illegal recycling industry.  

Many local governments simply banned or restricted individual collectors. Beijing issued a regulation on the management of household garbage this year that requires communities to stop trash pickers from sorting and mixing already classified garbage.  

Both Qi and Wu told NewsChina that the people in charge of their community or street have warned they might not be able to collect garbage in the future.  

In March 2020, Yang Xuefeng, a professor at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics, claimed in an article for Economic Information Daily that trash picking is not the same as garbage classification. “Garbage classification refers to dropping, collecting, transporting and disposing of garbage according to different classifications, while trash picking is merely a means of making money, and trash pickers make no contribution to raising public awareness [of garbage sorting and recycling],” he wrote.  

Wang Weiping disagrees. “We can sort garbage by weight using density blowers or magnets to sort out metallic waste, but no current technology can do the work more carefully and effectively than people doing it by hand,” he said. “Even developed countries like the US still have manual sorting.”  

Zhang Jieying wrote in her book The Life of Waste that trash pickers play a major role in garbage disposal, especially when it is hard to get households to sort and recycle their own trash. Trash picking offers a means to earn a living, especially during the recent economic slowdown.  

Wang Weiping said that in Beijing, trash collectors processed as much garbage as government garbage disposal plants, around 7.6 million tons based on 2016 data. If it costs 500 yuan (US$74) to process a ton of garbage, trash pickers reduce government expenditure for disposal by 3.8 billion yuan (US$558.8m) every year.  

Furthermore, trash pickers are good at what they do. A community in Shanghai, for example, reportedly employed an experienced trash picker to help residents sort household waste when the city rolled out compulsory household waste sorting in 2019.  

Wang Weiping and Zhang Jieying suggest that local governments should not ban trash collectors. In 2018 during the Two Sessions, China’s annual top legislative meetings, Song Lianghua, a member of the Sichuan Provincial People’s Political Consultative Conference, proposed including China’s army of trash pickers into the official urban garbage sorting and recycling system.  

“I’ve done a lot of research into how other countries deal with trash pickers... I think we can learn from Brazil, for example, where pickers take responsibility for garbage sorting and the government sets up cooperatives [to aid them]. This costs less and has much higher social and economic returns,” Song told the Sichuan Daily.