Anyone who has lived in a major city in China has seen the bizarre spectacle of trash piles. Back home, perhaps, trash is put in a bin which is then hauled away by the local government. You might have a separate bin or two for different kinds of recyclable materials, like paper or plastics. Here in China, on the other hand, all trash is thrown into the same big bins or, in heavily trafficked areas, piles. It’s then picked over by people looking for all sorts of things. Someone comes by and grabs all the empty plastic bottles, someone else gets glass, a guy on a motorized tricycle thing scrounges for wood or food waste. There are probably more that I don’t know about.
Liu Jingsong writes about the specifics in Beijing, where a ring of garbage dumps circle the city and various businesses operate by recovering things from the piles:
Wang Jiuliang, a photographer, was the first to expose the little-known Seventh Ring Zone garbage dumps in his documentary video and photos called “Besieged by Garbage.” Wang illustrates the scope by marking these 400 sites in yellow on a Google map, which form a dense ring, effectively encircling Beijing. The image is shocking, of a city besieged.
Wang Jiuliang has visited all 400 refuse heaps. “When you walk around these landfills, you can hear the sound of money flowing everywhere. Behind each dumping site lies interests.” he says, in a voice still charged with emotion.
I went to one of these dumping grounds near Xiaozhangwan village, three kilometers south of the Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road. Some scavengers were classifying the garbage by picking out cloth, metal, and plastic, and then putting the remnants into a more distant pit.
According to villagers, the pit with an area of about 300 acres was formerly a sandpit around 6 to 7 meters deep. It has been contracted to certain individuals since 2009, and is now almost completely full. A thin layer of earth covers the pit. Above it are lines of shanties for those who work on the site.
This illegal dump is not under Beijing’s sanitary monitoring system. Contractors have simply paid the village in order to operate their garbage recycling business.
Unrecoverable rubbish like mud, human waste, building rubble, and domestic waste are dumped directly into the pit. The charge for dumping depends on the size of the truck. As for recyclable materials, the site was divided into a number of sections to contain timber, metal, domestic junk, etc.
One of the sub-contractors from Xinyang of Henan Province said he moved here from another dump last year, and most people who work here are his compatriots from Xinyang. “The operators are all local people. They rent the pits from their village and then subcontract them to us”, he told me.
On the one hand, it’s good that recycling is on the rise here. On the other hand, this doesn’t seem like the best way to do it. The health effects on the people doing the recycling, and the effects on the general public thanks to problems like the unscrupulous recycling of food waste into carcinogenic “gutter oil” definitely bring a high price of their own.