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.