In cities across China, trash scavengers are more prevalent than recycling trucks. Low environmental awareness has led to mounting trash woes in major urban areas.
They are unlikely foot soldiers in an increasingly prosperous China's battle against trash: The elderly women poking through overflowing trash cans and fishing out soda cans and plastic bottles, as well as the old men who pile waste paper and cardboard high on rickety pushcarts, eking out a livelihood by finding recyclable treasure.
It seems that China, which does a brisk business in importing and disposing of Western trash, has been caught off-guard by how fast its own homegrown garbage is building up. After all, this is a country that is traditionally thrifty, and famine and deprivation are still very much in most people’s living memories.
But as China’s economy barrels onward, waste, a byproduct of prosperity, is piling up. And there's little structure in place to deal with it – aside from the trash pickers. Hong Kong is competitive with the world's developed economies in churning out garbage according to figures based off a 2009 survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Last year, an estimated 2,000 pounds per person of garbage, a quarter of which was food waste, was tossed out in Hong Kong. That outdid the Americans, who on average ditched about 1,700 pounds of trash.
“As the government has tried to foster recycling enterprises, the scale of those enterprises is no match to the sheer volume of trash being generated day in and day out,” says Hahn Chu, environmental affairs manager of Friends of the Earth in Hong Kong.
Indeed, in cities across China, efforts to recycle garbage are mostly baby steps, according to observers.
In major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, recycling bins are a common sight, but most serve as spare trash cans. There's no consistent pickup service by municipal workers. Mostly, scavengers looking to make some pocket change do the job.