Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

Updated: 2016-01-13 08:22

By Wang Yanfei(China Daily)

  Comments() Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Thousands of unregistered residents are facing eviction from Dongxiaokou village, a recycling center in the north of Beijing, as a result of the city government's accelerating urban renewal program. The move has prompted both social and environmental concerns, as Wang Yanfei reports.

At about noon on Jan 1, Xie Peng curled up on a tattered cushion on the ground and ate his meager lunch, a single pancake that cost 5 yuan (75 cents).

Shivering in the cold, the 60-year-old waste collector was waiting to meet with store assistants from the Zhuozhan shopping center, a large mall in Beijing's Haidian district, who sell discarded wrapping paper.

 Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

A view of Dongxiaokou village, a recycling center in a northern suburb of Beijing, in December. Photos by Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily

 Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

Above left: Gao, a waste collector, prepares lunch at her home in Dongxiaokou. The 48-year-old has been living in the village with her husband (right), also a waste collector, for nearly 20 years. Above right: Gao's husband disassembles old windows in front of the couple's house.

 Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

School students walk through a narrow alley lined with dilapidated houses in Dongxiaokou in December. Most children in the village come from the rural areas and live with their migrant worker parents.

"If we didn't make more money during the holidays when more wrapping paper is discarded, no one would be willing to stay in town today," he said, with a bitter smile.

After collecting the material, Xie drove his three-wheeled cart, loaded with 50 kilograms of wrapping paper, to his dilapidated house in Dongxiaokou village, where he sorted and packaged the discarded paper to sell to a recycling plant. His day's work brought him just 80 yuan.

'Second-class citizens'

Dongxiaokou is an urban slum in a northern suburb of the capital. Until recently it was the largest waste-processing center in Beijing and the volume of material processed there could affect prices in the North China recycling market.

The village has long been home to migrant workers from many provinces. They collect recyclable construction and household waste, such as wrapping paper, cans and plastic bottles, and sell it to treatment centers scattered across neighboring Hebei province.

Beijing's urban development plans means that many of these "second-class citizens", as they refer to themselves, will soon be evicted from their shabby homes and forced to relocate. Because they are migrant workers, and not registered with the authorities, the number of collectors is not known, but it's estimated there are several thousand.

As Beijing extends further north and transfers non-essential functions to neighboring provinces, the city government is speeding up the demolition of Dongxiaokou and hopes to complete the task this year.

Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

At one time, the village was at the center of an industry that provided a good living for the inhabitants, such as a waste collector surnamed Gao, who has been living in Dongxiaokou with her husband for nearly 20 years. "Before 2008, collecting waste was nice, lucrative work. The construction of new buildings in the city created vast amounts of construction and industrial waste," the 48-year-old said.

Gao was fully aware of the value of the waste she and her husband collected, and had an eye for the most profitable material. However, business began to sour in 2008 when the global economic meltdown reduced demand for construction and refurbishment materials. The waste-collecting trade was hit hard as the price of recyclable goods plummeted. "Now, we only collect old windows and have to dissemble them ourselves," she said.

Xie, who specializes in collecting waste paper, has experienced a similar decline. He said the price of paper has fallen by at least 80 percent recently: "It's not enough to make a living nowadays."

To make ends meet, he worked during the short New Year holiday, because "it's just an ordinary day like any other". Although Western New Year is growing in popularity in China, it is still small when compared with Spring Festival, the start of the year in the Chinese zodiac calendar, and the traditional time for family reunions. Despite this, Xie has no plans to return home to Xinyang, Henan province, for this year's festival, now less than a month away, because he can't afford to buy a travel ticket and is also loath to miss out on even more discarded holiday wrapping paper.

Even though life in Beijing is hard for Xie and his peers, it's even harder back in their home provinces, and many had hoped to stay in Beijing because they have nowhere else to go.

Gao's house, in Gushi, a county in Henan province, has been requisitioned by the local government, which plans to build a forest park on the land. The authorities compensated Gao and her husband for the loss of their home, and although she declined to name an exact figure, she said the amount they were given was far less than they'd hoped for. They have to provide for their family in Gushi, so they send almost 1,000 yuan every month. Lacking options, they plan to stay in the capital for as long as possible and try to earn a living where they can. "I guess it (staying in Beijing) is better than staying at home and doing nothing," Gao said.

She has become accustomed to the loud noises coming from construction sites just a few hundred meters away. From her rundown dwelling, Gao can see the half-built apartment blocks - like the construction sites that will soon cover Dongxiaokou - looming through the haze.

A displaced community

Since 2013, nearly 1.2 mill-ion square meters of unlicensed buildings have been demolished in the village, including 650,000 sq m of recycling facilities, according to Zhang Chuancheng, Dongxiaokou's deputy head.

"The land will be turned into grassland or used as a base for high-end industrial projects," he said. "Low-end industries, such as garbage collection, do not need to be located in Beijing."

The city government has built new houses for residents affected by the demolition and reconstruction project, but the collectors, migrant workers without Beijing hukou, or residency permits, are not eligible to apply.

Some of them, such as Xie, have decided to return to their hometowns and villages later this year. Xie said he has been thinking about going home for some time, "even though I have no idea what I will do when I get back".

He has had diabetes for several years, but lacking hukou, and therefore health insurance in the capital, he can only afford cheap medicines and has to administer the injections himself. "This will probably be my last New Year in Beijing," he said.

Gao said she will find somewhere else to live when her temporary house is torn down.

"Anywhere in Beijing is fine. I have to raise my kid who is studying in our hometown," she said. Without Beijing hukou, the children of migrant workers are not eligible to attend the city's public schools, so many of them are sent to private establishments that are suitable for the children of absent parents. Although the conditions in these schools are poor, they still charge about 4,500 yuan per semester, equal to several weeks' income for many migrant workers.

Replacement efforts

In the face of the planned demolition of Dongxiaokou's garbage centers and the eviction of the waste collectors, the municipal government has been making efforts to replace them.

Since 2010, the number of pilot projects to promote garbage classification in Beijing has risen from 600 to nearly 3,000, accounting for nearly 75 percent of the city's residential communities, China Environment News reported in March.

In December, the municipal environmental sanitation engineering group introduced community recycling banks where residents are encouraged to leave their unwanted items in return for vouchers that are redeemable at supermarkets. Those who register for an account on WeChat, a popular instant-messaging platform, will receive reward points they can swap for goods at a rate of 50 yuan for every 350 points. If they sort their garbage into specific categories, they are given cash. Next year, the system will be extended to another 350 residential communities, covering more than 1 million residents.

The program has attracted much attention, but some experts harbor doubts about its effectiveness. Song Guojun, a professor of environmental economics at the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Renmin University of China, said that although the new system seems easy to use, it will not alleviate the basic problem of waste recycling.

While Beijing is accelerating its urban development program, the city hasn't made enough preparations to deal with recyclable waste, according to Song.

"I don't think encouraging residents to classify their garbage or establishing garbage-collection centers are the ultimate solutions," he said. "There's a missing link - collection and sorting. Beijing has long relied on migrant workers to do the job; that's an undeniable fact."

Even if residents are willing to spend time sorting their garbage into appropriate categories, there will still be a need for people to collect the waste and undertake secondary sorting.

"Recyclable waste refers to materials that can be reused or turned into environmentally friendly items," Song said. "That requires manual sorting. For instance, we assume that residents know where to discard recyclable containers, but containers splattered with sauce need to be cleaned before they can be used again. Technology doesn't help. We need laborers to do this."

Environmental quandary

Beijing's unsorted waste presents an environmental problem, because it is either buried in landfills in neighboring provinces or burned, producing noxious, often toxic fumes. These pollutants, mainly sulfur and nitrogen oxides, can reach as much as 24 times the European Union's most-stringent daily limit of 50 milligrams per square meter, according to Chen Liwen, a former researcher with the Nature University, an environmental NGO in Beijing, who has studied the city's recycling industry since 2012.

"So far, at least, garbage classification promoted in pilot communities hasn't been promising," she said. "In Beijing, garbage is discarded in the wrong place in 90 percent of communities."

She suggested the government should strike a balance between development and related issues, such as the environmental and social impact.

"The government could either train more professionals to replace the migrant workers and sort the garbage, or hire experienced migrants who have been in the industry for years," she said. "I don't know how many years it will take for Beijing to solve the recycling problem. It largely depends upon whether the government will take the steps required to fill the gap."

Sun Yuan contributed to the story.

Contact the writer at wangyanfei@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 01/13/2016 page6)