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The Story Behind China’s Professional Recyclers

Squeezed between Tsinghua University and the Forestry University in Beijing’s Haidian district is a bustling two-lane road, 后八家 (hòubājiā). It literally means “eight families in the back,” and walking down the street you can see how it got its name—it’s crowded. The area is lined with restaurants, stalls, and family-run shops. It’s dirty, dusty, and […]

03·18·2010

The Story Behind China’s Professional Recyclers

Squeezed between Tsinghua University and the Forestry University in Beijing’s Haidian district is a bustling two-lane road, 后八家 (hòubājiā). It literally means “eight families in the back,” and walking down the street you can see how it got its name—it’s crowded. The area is lined with restaurants, stalls, and family-run shops. It’s dirty, dusty, and […]

03·18·2010

Squeezed between Tsinghua University and the Forestry University in Beijing’s Haidian district is a bustling two-lane road, 后八家 (hòubājiā). It literally means “eight families in the back,” and walking down the street you can see how it got its name—it’s crowded. The area is lined with restaurants, stalls, and family-run shops. It’s dirty, dusty, and in the summer heat, it smells. The sidewalks, you see, are piled with junk.

In the evening, as rush hour brings the rest of the city to a complete stand-still, this one block comes alive with scrap collectors arriving on their flatbed tricycles. The collectors pedal down the packed street, teetering dangerously under towers of collapsed cardboard boxes, bags of bottles, stacks of mattresses, and piles of old computer monitors, printers, lamps, books, and clothes.

These men and women have scoured the city on bike, collecting any and all recyclables they can get their hands on, before heading to Houbajia. As you see them biking through the city, laden with scraps, this is likely where they’re headed.

As the sun sets, they pedal their loads down the block, chatting with the junk sorters—men who appraise their collections and make them an offer in cash. The scraps are then sold to larger dealers or taken to recycling collection points where they will be sorted again. Finally they will be shipped to recycling plants outside Beijing, some as far away as Hubei Province.

In 2005, there were an estimated two and a half million of these scrap collectors in China, according to a World Bank report. They scour cities on motorized or pedal-driven tricycles, going from business to business, home to home, and some are literally on call. They collect and buy recyclables, packing them on the back of their ride, and selling them for a slim profit to back-alley sorters who then ship it all off for processing. And even though one load passing by may appear to be a small dent in the massive world of recycling, in 2006, these peddlers handled a remarkable 80 percent of Beijing’s electronics. They form China’s underground recycling network, a low tech solution, but one that works.

Economic analysts and business entrepreneurs have been saying that Beijing’s streets are paved with gold—scrap collectors will tell you the trash cans are lined with it too. In 2008, Beijing produced almost 19,000 tons of garbage a day.

A kilogram of used paper is worth about seven jiao, or 10 American cents, and one plastic bottle sells for around one jiao, or one and a half American pennies. Sifting through garbage cans for bottles, or scouring restaurant tables for half-read morning papers, can provide a modest income for some. And that’s only the beginning.

“We don’t bother with bottles or paper—there’s a special place for that down the road,” said Huang, a middle-aged mother of four from Hubei Province. Her junk-peddling bike is loaded down with textiles, plastic sheets, and scraps of wood. A pile of foam pieces, worth about four kuai each, are scattered at her feet. With a family to look after, Huang doesn’t have the time to do much collecting herself, but she acts as a middle-man for collectors and larger recycling stations.

Every day, from two to six in the afternoon, she stands in the same spot, buying scraps from other collectors. At the end of her work day, she bikes her purchases the short distance home, and sells her goods to another, larger collector. From these transactions, she makes about 1000 RMB a month, far more than could be made in her Hubei Province hometown village.

Most of her friends and family have also left the village, and moved to larger cities across China, looking for work and a chance at a better life. “Our village of a few hundred has only a dozen or so people left,” Huang said with a sharp laugh.

Her sentiments are echoed by another collector who has been working in Beijing for over 10 years. “Back home,” he said, “there’s just no way to put food on the table.” In the city, he makes about 1000 RMB a month driving a motorbike-trailer around town and collecting trash. (The cardboard that’s piled high behind him? Seven jiao a kilo, but his Styrofoam is worth more.)

Like any other workman in the city, he has a regular work routine. He sets out every morning at eight, scouring the streets for valuable trash. He takes an hour and a half for lunch, and ends his day around five. He rides about 10 kilometers a day. Like any workplace, there are challenges. “The competition here can be fierce,” he said. But with no technical skills and a limited education, it’s an appealing job.

“It’s either do this or be a cleaner,” Huang added, with a sour expression. “And who wants to be a cleaner?”

Yu Hao is a chatty thirty-year-old, also from Hubei Province. Most days, he stands on a Houbajia corner, buying broken electrical appliances from the peddlers, and storing them in a minivan parked in the middle of the sidewalk.

“If they can be fixed, I sell them to second-hand appliance stores. If not, I sell their materials for scrap.” As he spoke, he began to tear apart a water cooler. “I have no technical skills, but I do have an idea. After Spring Festival, I want to buy a computer and learn how to use the Internet.”

With a wife, two kids and an income to earn, Yu hasn’t learned to use a computer yet, but hopes to. “I want to bring my business online, and handle the really huge stuff from big buildings—like central air conditioners.”

He glances up from his work to scan the other peddlers’ scraps as they pedal past. He motions for one man to stop and buys a water cooler for 15 RMB. “I make four to five kuai off these,” he smiled. On a good day, Yu might make 1000 RMB, but usually brings in only a few hundred, and a total of 3000 to 5000 RMB a month.

Spring and summer are the best seasons, but because of the economic recovery, this year’s winter has been better.

Yu has a keen eye, is sharp, and knows his business. He plans to turn his one-person sidewalk recycling operation into a bigger business. This may sound like a pipe-dream, but on the streets of Beijing, anything’s possible. One of China’s most notorious entrepreneurs, electronics tycoon Huang Guangyu, is a local legend after building his Gome appliance empire out of a Beijing street stall like Yu Hao’s.

As China’s rising middle class consumes more, they are also producing more waste. In 2009, Beijing began a “zero-waste” management plan and urged consumers to produce less waste; city officials even fine those who go over set limits. The last Saturday of every month has become a designated recycling day, where official recycling stations are set up throughout the city.

Side-street collectors and dealers like Huang and Yu Hao may find their livelihoods threatened by these developments. For now, they are the foot-soldiers in China’s recycling efforts. Decades before it was state-mandated, these resourceful collectors were patrolling sidewalks on tricycle, keeping China’s cities clean.

  • to recycle
  • huíshōu 回收
  • Recyclables
  • fèipǐn 废品
  • migrant worker
  • nóngmín gōng 农民工
  • scrap collector
  • shōu fèipǐn de rén 收废品的人
  • Do you collect recyclables?
  • nǐ shōu fèipǐn ma? 你收废品吗?
  • There must be 100 kuai’s worth of empty bottles in my house.
  • gūjì wǒ jiālǐ de kōngpíngzi néng mài yìbǎi duō kuài qián 。 估计我家里的空瓶子能卖一百多块钱。