Ubiquitous yet invisible, vitally important yet frequently ignored, China’s informal recyclers play a key, if unofficial role in the country‘s current recycling system, even as their profession continues to be stigmatized as dirty, poor, and marginal.
China’s cities produce vast quantities of all kinds of waste: In both Shanghai and Beijing, residents throw away more than 20,000 tons of garbage a day. Even comparatively smaller cities like Xi’an in northwestern China are so inundated with waste, their landfills can’t keep up.
In an attempt to put a lid on the country’s mounting trash troubles, China’s leaders have ordered cities nationwide to implement mandatory waste-sorting schemes by 2025. Beginning this year, major metropolises such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou have all either announced or begun implementing high-profile — if occasionally contentious — mandatory waste-sorting campaigns. But official and public focus has largely remained stuck on getting residents to divide their so-called wet waste, including food waste, from other non-recyclable goods. Comparatively little attention is being paid to recycling, despite the fact that recyclables can account for 30% or more of waste in major cities like Shanghai, according to my research.
In China’s waste management system, recyclables and ordinary waste are handled via two different systems. Municipal sanitation departments are responsible for the collection and disposal of the latter, while municipal commerce bureaus deal with the former.
In practice, commerce bureau-managed recycling systems have grown heavily dependent on the work of independent, informal recyclers. The waste residents put in the city’s sidewalk-adjacent recycling bins — if not taken away by these individuals — ends up being sent by sanitation departments to landfills or incinerators rather than being recycled.
In 2014, over 8 million Chinese made their livings collecting recyclable trash. Every day this group sifts through mountains of waste, separating what can be salvaged from what can’t. Once, in Beijing, I watched as a husband and wife team worked from dawn to dusk, without taking a break. In a given day, they could comb through as much as 1 ton of trash.
In recent years, however, policymakers and experts have started thinking about how to increase recycling rates by combining the urban sanitation and recycling systems. Typically, these proposals suggest sanitation departments take over recycling programs. Few have any interest in incorporating the existing informal recycling system. This is a mistake. Over the past few decades, the informal system has become both highly specialized and efficient. We should not ignore it — or the people who’ve developed it.
After the beginning of the reform era in the late 1970s, a large section of China’s surplus rural labor force flooded into the country’s cities. Many of them made their living by scavenging and trading recyclable waste. In Beijing, migrant recyclers had functionally displaced the state-run recycling system by the early ’90s.
Market forces quickly pushed recyclers into developing a comprehensive recycling system. Some undertake, whether or not on a contract basis, the recycling for entire neighborhoods or districts; others scavenge for recyclable waste in trash cans on the street or ride between communities on electric tricycles collecting what they can. What isn’t fit for secondhand markets, they bring to so-called recycling marketplaces located on the urban periphery.
These markets were formed by individuals or waste-management companies who leased land from nearby villages and set up stalls dedicated to buying and recycling one or two types of items. These they sort and sell on to recycling companies. The largest markets might have several hundred stalls, specializing in everything from paper to plastic or glass.
The people behind this system are highly professional. They must be able to judge different materials and models of electronics, lest they pay too much for them. And contrary to what many believe, recyclers do not necessarily all live in extreme poverty. In 2008, when the average annual salary of urban workers nationwide was less than 30,000 yuan ($4,350), a few Beijing-based recyclers were earning as much as 60,000 yuan.
The efficiency of any recycling program depends largely on the degree to which waste can be properly sorted. At present, most major Chinese recycling companies rely on “smart recycling bins” or mechanical sorting. But these methods are not as efficient or as refined as a recycling system run by people and are still far from being able to replace the existing informal recycling system.
I once compared informal recyclers with those employed by enterprises. The employed recyclers received a fixed salary and worked fixed hours, which often didn’t correspond with peak trash drop-off hours. This, combined with their overall low motivation, meant their efficiency was much lower than that of informal recyclers.
In recent years, however, falling prices for recyclable waste and the mandated closures of a number of recycling markets have left many recyclers struggling to make a living. From the second half of 2014 until 2016, nearly half of Beijing’s recyclers left the industry. The consequences of this loss soon became apparent, as the amount of recyclable waste sent to landfills increased by 6%, according to a city official.
Redesigning our recycling system in ways that exclude the informal sector is unrealistic, not to mention a waste of manpower, resources, and money. Our best bet is to make use of the existing recycling system, improve its shortcomings, and provide more support to the country’s recyclers.
To begin with, policymakers should officially recognize the informal system and include it in their calculations. This means safeguarding and supporting recyclers’ role in the recycling chain. The goodwill recyclers have built in their communities can also be leveraged to raise residents’ awareness of the need to sort waste.
Second, policies, including tax regimens and land use regulations, should be adjusted to account for the needs of the recycling market. Recycling marketplaces should be treated as infrastructure, their continued operations encouraged.
Third, low-value recyclable waste, such as plastic packaging, should be banned. In addition, we need to offer better incentives to recycle products that currently fetch too low a price to collect, but which are highly recyclable, such as glass.
In other words, China should make use of its informal recycling system, rather than try to replace or formalize it. Doing so won’t just improve the recycling rate, it will also provide continued, stable employment for the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been keeping China clean for decades.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A sanitation worker picks up trash in Beijing, July 3, 2019. VCG)