This week, Trashtastic Tuesday features trash professor Joshua Goldstein whose research focuses on waste management and garbage pickers in China throughout radically different political periods. Josh was nice enough to share his insight on everything from the upcoming Beijing Olympics to the pros and cons of modern garbage collection. Fascinating stuff.
everydaytrash: How many “garbage pickers” currently work in the Beijing area?
Professor Joshua Goldstein: There are no definitive statistics on the number of pickers, and to some extent it also depends on how you define “pickers.” If you define pickers as folks working in landfills picking, then the number is probably just a couple thousand; if you include street pickers and folks who purchase post-consumer scrap from residents and businesses and then sell that scrap at recycling markets, the number is probably between 200,000-300,000. If you include garbage collectors and street sweepers who pick and sell on the side as well as residents (often the elderly) who regularly pick scrap from their neighborhoods for some extra cash, the number would easily exceed 350,000.
everydaytrash: How has the role of migrant garbage pickers evolved in recent Chinese history?
Goldstein: The migrant recyclers are the heart of the recycling sector in Beijing and have taken over the sector from the municipal state-owned recycling bureau. Over the last several years the state has stopped violently repressing and detaining most of these peasant migrants. Instead the Beijing government is using different indirect methods to formalize migrant recycling activities, such as more strictly regulating scrap markets, restricting the use of bicycle carts (the recycler’s main method of moving goods), and restricting the opening of collection points. The state has essentially given up on competing with the migrants and has moved to trying to regulate them effectively.
everydaytrash: How is China’s preparation for the upcoming Olympics affecting their livelihood?
Goldstein: It’s hard to say, and that’s part of what I hope to do some research into. My sense is, it hasn’t had a huge effect in any straight–forward way. the plan had been, it seemed back around 2000, that the municipal government would take over the sector, displace most of the migrant bosses and radically reduce the migrant involvement in the trade and replace them with unemployed Beijing residents or with state-allied and more easily managed companies. But these efforts to curtail, reduce, and coopt migrants in this sector seems to have failed and the state appears to have given up on this goal. Now it seems trying to regulate what exists is their main goal, and then probably in Summer 2008 there will be massive controls put on all recycling activity…as well as upon almost every other activity in Beijing.
everydaytrash: Is the informal garbage collection system in China corrupt, crime-filled and run by gangs?
Goldstein: There is certainly a lot of crime and corruption; this is a tricky question in a Socialist Market economy that in itself is oxymoronic and riddled with contradictions and “grey market” activities. Everyday gang activity and violence around the scrap yards seem to have lessened over the last several years. For example, it was common that gangs would charge fees on any truck entering a scrap yard; but the yards are far more organized, with weigh-scales and guards etc., and that sort of blatant threatening activity has dwindled. But certainly bosses all have experience with corruption, insider information, etc. I am quite ignorant about this side of things still…folks don’t talk about it at all openly.
everydaytrash: Are garbage pickers more efficient/better for the environment than government-run national recycling programs?
Certainly migrants are much more efficient, and the migrant sector is huge and laborers come from relatively poor parts of the countryside, so the social value of having migrants doing this work is quite great. Environmentally…there are so many aspects to that question. Overall, my sense is that between the migrant system and the state’s there is hardly any meaningful difference environmentally speaking. Whether the scrap is state or migrant collected, it generally gets trucked out to second tier cities where environmental regulations are not enforced and the secondary processing factories do major damage.
everydaytrash: Are there laws in place to protect the rights of migrant workers in China?
Goldstein: There are beginning to be, and there are some social services being developed as well; but these are all very recent, weak, and not very highly publicized. Migrants have far more freedom than even just a few years ago. Up to around 2000 they were still basically like illegal aliens in cities such as Beijing where household registration laws were quite strictly enforced. Now they are free to settle in the city, send their kids to schools, etc, but they still face many administrative and economic barriers.
Photo by Jan Egil Kirkebo.