'Junkman army' beats an untimely retreat

By Yang Zekun | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-14 08:58
[Mukesh Mohanan/China Daily]

Even as Beijing prepares to introduce stringent trash-sorting programs, the high cost of living is forcing freelance garbage collectors to leave the city. Yang Zekun reports.

Editor's note: In the wake of new regulations to encourage trash sorting across Shanghai, this is the second of two stories focusing on the central government's efforts to introduce the practice in Beijing, before expanding it to other cities around the country.

While bottles, cans and cartons may be trash to other people, they represent treasure for Chen Wanming.

After getting up at 7 am and eating a couple of steamed buns with pickles for breakfast, Chen gets on his electric tricycle and rides around Beijing's Changping district collecting recyclable trash. Most days he covers more than 70 kilometers.

In 1996, Beijing became the first city in China to launch waste-sorting programs, but the effect was limited. Now, following in the wake of Shanghai, which on July 1 implemented compulsory sorting of domestic waste with the aim of making garbage disposal more efficient, the capital is preparing to enact legislation related to trash sorting.

Every day, junkmen ride around the capital collecting trash, which is sent to recycling centers. At the peak in 2014, there were more than 200,000 junkmen in Beijing, but few were locals. Like Chen, they mostly came from other parts of China.

After finishing high school in 1976, Chen started teaching Chinese in his hometown, Zhoukou city, Henan province. However, the monthly salary of 9 yuan meant he was unable to support his family, so he left in 1997 and joined Beijing's "junkman army".

"Tens of thousands of people from my hometown came to Beijing to collect waste. My wife came here a year earlier than me with a friend. This is a free job, without limits on the time you can work or the areas you can visit," the 63-year-old said.

Chen has no fixed routine. Instead, he rides around and keeps an eye out for recyclable trash. He usually carries two batteries as extra power for his electric tricycle.

Around 11 am every day, Chen visits recycling stations in Changping to sell the items he has collected. Then, he returns home for lunch and a nap timed to avoid the searing afternoon heat. He usually resumes his trash-collection duties at about 4 pm.

"I can earn about 60 to 70 yuan ($9 to $10) from each load I sell; if I'm lucky, I can make more than 100 yuan a day," he said.

Chen has lived alone in a 10-square-meter rented room since his wife returned to Zhoukou to care for their grandchildren two and half years ago. He is not allowed to store waste in the room, so everything he collects has to be sold on the day.

Like most junkmen without a fixed income, Chen lives a simple life. His monthly expenses total about 1,800 yuan, including 360 yuan for rent, 70 yuan for electricity and 600 yuan for cigarettes. The rest is spent on food.

"Everything is expensive in Beijing; sometimes 7 yuan will not even buy me a decent breakfast. Last time I bought some steamed buns in a supermarket, they cost 2 yuan each, which is too expensive," he said.

Having lived in Beijing for 22 years, Chen has witnessed many changes, but he has chosen to stay, even though life is hard.

"I cannot find a proper job in my hometown, and I am used to my current lifestyle, which makes me feel a little bit freer," he said.

Too much trash

Wang Chao, from Gushi county, Henan province, runs a renewable resources recycling station in Changping. He started the business in 2004, when he arrived in the capital.

Eight people, including Wang and his wife, work at the station, which can deal with 2 to 3 metric tons of recyclable waste per day, mainly plastic bottles, cans and polyethylene film.

The 37-year-old said it takes 38,400 plastic 550 milliliter mineral water bottles to make 1 ton, and private recycling stations like his across Beijing can handle more than 6 million bottles per day.

Wang's station has two main channels for renewable waste supplies. The first is 150 trucks whose drivers are franchised by registered recycling companies. They collect waste in communities and waste stations, and sell the recyclable items to Wang. The second source is the more-than 60 junkmen like Chen, who have cooperated with him for a long time.

Chen said only a few people have a real understanding of garbage classification, which is a big problem because it results in them mixing different types of garbage, then dumping it at will.

"Repeated house decorating, excessive packaging and overuse of plastics cause too much garbage. Many people now disdain selling trash to make money, so they just throw out their recyclable and unrecyclable waste together," he added.

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