Trash Redefined: From pickers to 'garbage room administrators'
The city of Shanghai is one month into a mandatory garbage-sorting rule. The rule is changing the lives of almost every individual in the city, and perhaps more so, for waste pickers. In the final episode of our series 'Trash Redefined', we look at how the new rule has impacted their work, in ways both good and bad.
YANG CHENGXI SHANGHAI "August is one of the hottest months in Shanghai, with temperatures well above 30 degrees Celsius, and humidity sometimes approaching 90 percent. The steamy weather is surely a struggle for people who work outdoors and we are going to meet some of them."
ZHOU YUEXIANG SANITARY WORKER "I'm so busy these days!"
Zhou Yuexiang is a janitor for a residential community. Under the city's new rule, all trash bins in the area now must be moved to this room. And new disposal time guidelines mean she has to come to work much earlier each day.
ZHOU YUEXIANG SANITARY WORKER "Because of the new rule, the community needs me here. Somebody needs to open and close the gate, and keep watch, right?"
But her bigger new headache is right here. The room is closed for most of the day, but some residents just can't wait.
ZHOU YUEXIANG SANITARY WORKER "Most people follow the rule well, but some don't. The first thing I do in the morning is to clean the periphery."
Most of the people working in communities are migrant workers from the countryside. Apart from Zhou, many others make a living picking through recyclable waste and selling it. It was already a thankless job before the garbage sorting rule. Dangerous objects like shattered pieces of glass are mixed in with everything.
MR. SU SHANGHAI TRASH PICKER "We have a hard time. We cut our hands picking through the waste all the time."
Yet they are important. They take care of over 90 percent of all discarded items from bottles and cans to cardboard thrown away in the city each day.
RICHARD BRUBAKER, FOUNDER COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY "You're not a formal member of the system. But you're a valuable contributor to the challenge right now. The challenge that the city faces is the waste itself: how to manage it, how to make sure you recover the resources that are valuable to the manufacturing sector outside of Shanghai."
In the past two years, they are feeling the blow from a slowdown in the economy and China's industrial upgrading. The result is a slump in demand from factories for recycled materials.
"Prices for recyclables are falling everywhere!"
QI YUMEI SHANGHAI LANDSCAPING & CITY APPEARANCE ADMINISTRATIVE BUREAU "The market system for recyclable waste in Shanghai is now near collapsing."
Under the new garbage sorting rule, many of them have become so-called "garbage room administrators". The good part is that they don't have to roam around and scavenge for recyclables anymore. But sometimes this new role isn't that great. When residents don't sort properly, these people are the ones who are left to deal with garbage truck workers who threaten to reject unsorted waste.
MR. SU SHANGHAI TRASH PICKER "We need to sort people's garbage ourselves. We take them in and we start sorting."
Experts say something could be done on a legislative level against residents who fail to sort their trash.
RICHARD BRUBAKER, FOUNDER COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY "The best models are actually Japan and Korea. Because the fines for failure is so high, and they're able to actually pinpoint who did what. If you can't it makes it really hard to enforce individual failures."
MR. SU SHANGHAI TRASH PICKER "I'll keep doing this job. Why? Because I'm not young anymore, and it's hard to find work. To be honest, garbage work is the only thing I can do."
During the 2019 National People's Congress, a delegate proposed that the government should give trash pickers legal standing and formal employment. But changes don't come overnight. Shanghai's garbage sorting system is expected to set an example for the country. Experts say it is important to consider everyone's role in the disposal chain. YCX, CGTN, SHANGHAI.