Garbage recycling: Chinese style
By Kim Kyung-Hoon
When I heard that the rate of recycling PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles in China is almost 90%, I was surprised. Because I have noticed since moving to Beijing that the Chinese have no real concept of separating trash for recycling.
So, how do they accomplish it?
The first place I visited in tracking down the recycling process of PET bottles was Asia’s largest recycling factory, INCOM Resources Recovery in Beijing, which processes 50,000 tons of used PET bottles every year. In this factory, abandoned plastic bottles are transformed into clean PET plastic material for making new bottles. But what struck me the most was neither its automated machinery nor its huge piles of compressed plastic bottles stacked almost to the height of a two-story building. The more remarkable fact was that this high-end facility relies on thousands of garbage collectors rummaging through trash cans for more than one third of its supplies
The important role of this cheap labor in China’s recycling industry was apparent when I visited one of the estimated 20,000 small recycling depots on the outskirts of the capital. Different types of plastic garbage turned in by refuse collectors is sold to the recycling centers where it is converted into money after backbreaking work by the workers in the centers. Sitting next to the mountain of plastic bottles, the low-paid laborers are too busy to find time to breathe while removing labels from the bottles and separating them according to type of material.
Most workers in the recycling depots are migrant workers from rural areas who have come to the city to look for industrial jobs and higher income, but their weary life seemed little different than their previous existence in their hometowns.
Wu, a migrant worker who came from Sichuan Province in 2007 and has worked in a small recycling depot on the outskirts of Beijing, said he and his partner have to work more than 12 hours a day separating plastic and filling up a one-ton sack but his monthly income is not stable and not more than a few hundred dollars. But even this cheap labor is inadequate to solve China’s growing garbage problem. In China, only refuse which can be converted to money is chosen for recycling, while most of the rest is simply dumped into landfills.
According to the government’s figures reported by local media, about 4.67 million tons of recyclable waste was collected in Beijing in 2010. In the same year, 6.35 million tons of trash ended up in the city’s landfills. The last place I went in my quest was a landfill, the final resting place for garbage which was not chosen for recycling. But it is not easy to find landfills in Beijing anymore because the edges of the city where garbage used to be dumped have been swallowed up by the fast pace of urbanization and most landfills in town have been kicked out of the city in the last couple of years due to increasing complaints from residents.
After weeks of research, I was able to find only a few landfills and came to realize how they are one example of Beijing’s current headaches. Newly-built residential complexes appear right next to landfills, where the garbage is piled up like a mountain. Even though many of them are destined to live with the stinky smell and toxic gas emitted from the mountains of garbage for many years, they are going to have fewer places to dump their garbage in town.
In China, they waste more now, and have fewer places to throw it all away.