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The secret lives of urban waste pickers

Wu Ka Ming and Zhang Jieying’s new book documents the unknown lives of waste pickers living on the outskirts of Beijing

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Lengshui village near Beijing is home to a community of waste pickers. Beijing's informal economy of waste management relies on close-knit networks of migrant workers. (Image by Zhang Jieying)

It’s possible to think of cities as organisms, their metabolisms at work in places and at times we don’t notice. Rarely do we stop and question where our waste goes and who it is that collects and sorts it. These people work at the margins of our lives, removing things we don’t want to see and in the process becoming themselves invisible.

In a new book, "
Living with Waste: Economies, Communities and Spaces of Waste Collectors in China", two sociologists, Wu Ka Ming and Zhang Jieying, describe these unknown lives that play out on Beijing’s outskirts, exposing the vitality thriving in the city’s shadows.

They visit the village of Lengshui, 50 kilometres north of Beijing, home to a community of waste pickers. Part of this world is as we might expect it to be. Piles of rubbish and pools of foul water gather, while pets and children, alike, play in the waste. Another part is more surprising. Homes here are often spotless, as if domestic life becomes more orderly the more chaotic the surroundings are. The families here, from all over China, form close-knit communities that extend beyond blood relationships.

We spoke to the authors about life in these recycling communities.


chinadialogue
(CD): "Living with Waste" treats recycling as an “informal economy”. Can you explain how this informal process relates to official waste collection and recycling?

Zhang Jieying (ZJY)
: Municipal solid waste is an inevitable product of urbanisation and industrialisation. Although originally nobody had much of a view on what should be done with this waste, it’s increasingly become part of the government’s role to handle it. But waste handling always lags behind production – there will always be more waste to deal with, it’s very much an ongoing process.

In 2004, China became the world’s largest producer of waste, overtaking the US, but not all waste is handled by the government, individual waste pickers play a major role.

Wu Ka Ming (WKM)
: Although we talk about this being unofficial, the government has been trying to bring waste pickers under its management to resolve issues such as secondary pollution arising from inadequate recycling, albeit unsuccessfully. We found they aren’t willing to be brought within the system. This has become a way of life with its own set of work ethics. Some regard their work as providing more freedom than a factory job, and with lower risk of wages going unpaid.

CD: How did you get close to these groups? Were their circumstances as you expected?

WKM
: We travelled to the outskirts of Beijing with some colleagues that work on migrant worker issues and discovered this particular group of “workers”. How is this group different from those we already know, the workers on mass production lines in factories? That’s what we focus on in our research and in the book.

WKMI’m from Hong Kong, and I knew very little about these people before meeting them. It was only after starting in this field of study that I realised these people are in effect paying the price for our shiny new urban lifestyles. They keep it looking shiny and new by making sure we don’t have to see the rubbish or worry for a second about the dirty and wasteful aspects of economic development.

ZJY
: I began working with these groups maybe eight or nine years ago. When I started in sociology I wanted to find the “biggest victims”. I was influenced by some artistic works and I had some fixed, romanticised ideas about these people, of a gang working at society’s lowest levels. Once I actually met them I realised that wasn't the case. They’re rational people, their industry has rules, ways of working, and if you gain experience or use more technology you can do better.

CD: What kind of rules do you mean?

WKM
: Many people think this is an unattractive job, but we found it’s actually hard to get. If you don’t have a contact, if you don’t know someone from your village already doing it, you won’t get anywhere.

ZJY: For example, the waste pickers have a mutually beneficial arrangement with apartment complex management firms. The firms need someone to remove waste but using the government service means they have to help load the truck. The pickers do their own loading, and know how to negotiate and build stable and trusting relationships, ensuring they get all the waste from an entire residential complex.
 

They make sure we don’t have to worry about the dirty and wasteful aspects of economic development.


CD: Is it hard to carry out field studies on these populations? How do they react to the outside attention?

ZJY
: Waste picker groups are quite closed off and wary, as in Beijing there are quite often efforts to remove migrant workers. So they don’t know if they might be moved on, and they don’t want to risk any links with outsiders unless there’s some benefit in it for them.

As anthropologists all we can do is spend a long time building up trust; it’s like courting a girl, you’ve got to be patient. And that process itself provides food for thought: why are they so closed off and hard to approach? Other low-status workers, such as migrant workers on building sites, are much easier to approach and more willing to chat. Why the difference? That spurred us to look at their lives, their thoughts, their homes and leisure.

WKM
: Our research subjects were also curious about us – they didn’t understand why we were interested in them. We had to get to know each other. Once they understood we weren’t reporters looking for a novelty, they spoke to us.They are looked down on, vilified, but working with us gave them a sense of equality and respect.

CD: The book says that as Beijing expands waste pickers are constantly being moved further away, to the point they’re now renting rooms from farmers. Can you describe where these people live?

WKM
: Waste is a part of their lives. To make things easier and to save money, they live and work in the same place, occupying rooms around a farm courtyard, with the yard itself piled with sorted and unsorted rubbish. There’s a foul stench in summer. But we also saw that some families keep their simple homes spotlessly clean, in sharp contrast to the mess outside.
 

Waste picker groups are closed and wary. In Beijing there are often efforts to remove migrant workers.


ZJY: The village of Lengshui is almost an ecosystem. Local farmers and the migrant farmers rent their buildings alongside a state-owned firm and a high-end residential complex. It’s a complicated place.

WKM: During gentrification, property developers try to acquire places like this. In the past the waste pickers could still make it into the city to work but now they live so far out that the costs of transportation, in both time and money, are mounting.

CD: The book talks about the waste pickers’ nostalgia for their home villages, which is very moving. Do you think that an idealised view of home, and the longing for that, help them to survive?

WKM
: It’s a very important issue. The difference between the pickers and other migrant workers is that they live close to where the city meets the countryside. They tell us that conditions aren’t that different from at villages at home. The odd thing is that their home villages are modernising, while they are living somewhere even more backwards. The concept of home is very complex and is hugely significant for their construction of agency.

ZJY
: Often home is a symbol, or a dream. The waste pickers aren’t old enough to retire and go home and it’s not certain that they ever will. They exist in a dual reality, with a far-off home promising success, respect and a happy life, allowing them to endure their actual lives of exploitation in the city.

The book examines the psychology of self-deprivation; how they live in terrible conditions, making no purchases, and investing all their money in their houses back home, even though no one lives there. They might only go back every few years, while in day to day life they endure the most basic conditions. That’s the dual reality for many migrant workers.

 

Wu Ka Ming is assistant professor of the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Research interests include the interplay between state, society, culture and capital in contemporary China.

Zhang Jieying is assistant researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Sociology. Research interests include environmental anthropology, waste, social movements, and the sociology of science and technology.

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