Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

Updated: 2016-01-13 08:22

By Wang Yanfei(China Daily)

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 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

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.

"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'

Waste collectors headed for the scrapheap

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.

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.

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