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From military school to a collectors' army

By Hou Liqiang | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-31 09:26

Although Xu Yuanhong graduated from a military academy, the 34-year-old has never served as an army officer. Despite his training, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a garbage collector, but surpassed him by starting AiFenLei, a WeChat miniprogram that uses the internet to facilitate trash sorting, collection and recycling.

When Xu's father arrived in Beijing in the 1990s, he worked on construction sites. However, as many people from his hometown of Xinyang, Henan province, were making more money by collecting garbage, he decided to join them.

As business boomed, Xu Sr. and some friends started a garbage-trading market in Dongxiaokou, a township in Changping district that was home to about 300,000 garbage collectors.

The venture developed into one of the 10 leading markets of its type in the capital, covering 6.7 hectares. Xu Yuanhong said: "I came to Beijing at age 3. Growing up in the market, I was a typical second-generation garbage collector."

He recalled that each collector's allotted area covered about 700 square meters and was surrounded by a simple wall. The collectors not only operated their businesses from these areas, but also erected makeshift homes to live in, while the trash they collected was piled up outside.

Even though the collectors focused on metal and wood, the market was dirty and a mess, Xu added.

The garbage collectors' low social status is one of his abiding memories. He recalled a discussion he once heard among a group of civil servants awaiting the arrival of a team of officials.

"One said, 'Look! They are all junkmen. They take their children with them. Their children will be junkmen as well'," Xu recalled.

Despite the stigma, Xu developed an interest in garbage collection. "My father's business fed the whole family. I grew up in the market and was influenced by what I saw and heard there," he said.

When he was a junior student at a military academy in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, Xu started collecting information about the garbage-recycling industry overseas. He was deeply impressed by the dignity of workers in the circular economy's industrial parks, the good working environment and the fact that the parks boasted a wealth of high technology, he said.

In 2004, he started an undergraduate degree in computer science, and in 2007 he drafted a feasibility study to establish a garbage-sorting center. He presented the document to the Beijing government but failed to get a response.

"I liked the industry, and I wanted to work in it. However, I also wanted to upgrade it - instead of using the same model as my father's generation, I wanted to transform the old market into something like a garden city," he said.

Having graduated, he began a master's in management science, but had to abandon his plans for the old market in Dongxiaokou when the government decided to demolish the facility, he said.

After gaining his master's in 2013, Xu started working for a real estate investment company in the capital, while running a garbage-sorting company in his spare time.

A conversation with a friend triggered the idea that he could combine what he had learned as a computing major with his garbage-sorting skills to establish an information technology-based logistics system for the sector.

In 2017, he put his idea into practice and started AiFenLei, signaling a new approach. The company employs 200 people, including about 20 who used to be unlicensed garbage collectors, and he plans to employ more of them in the future.

"I want to transform this traditional industry via an internet-based approach," Xu said.

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