Recycle this!

We all know that China is faces major environmental issues largely as a result of their unfettered industrial development over the last decade and a bit.  What you may not know, however, is that the Chinese have a system of recycling that would rival any developed country.  The question is – is it really such a positive thing?

Chinese migrant recyclers by Adam Robert Young

This family makes the majority of its income collecting junk from demolition sites around Guangzhou city and breaking it down into raw components which are then sold to recyclers

Some may ask what could possibly be bad about having a thorough recycling program, but believe me, there are some pretty dire side-effects of the nation being overly keen on salvaging any useful materials from not only their own waste, but also that of other countries.  Before I get to that, I think it’s important to know why recycling is so widespread here in China as opposed to many more developed countries…

The key factor is poverty.

A homeless migrant worker in Guangzhou, China by Adam Robert Young

One of thousands of Chinese that flock to the major cities in search of a better life. This one was sleeping near a major shopping centre in Guangzhou. She is surrounded by bags full of recycling collected from rubbish bins or scavenged from back alleyways that she will sell to recycling companies for a few cents per kilogram.

As China’s economy surges on, with reports of increasing living standards for Chinese, anyone with their eyes open can see that not everyone is gaining the benefits of the nation’s economic growth.  The obvious inequality can be seen in predictions that by 2015, Chinese will be the largest consumers of luxury products, along with claims by some luxury brands that Chinese already account for as much as 40% of their customer base internationally, while just under half a billion Chinese are living on $2 a day, with about 150 million living below the United Nations poverty line of one US dollar per day.

When you are doing it tough, you’re likely to do anything you can to scrape together enough to buy a decent meal for yourself and your family, thus the extreme recycling.  I remember I left an electric guitar outside my apartment a few years ago in Guangzhou, hoping someone would take it to use or sell it on.  I was somewhat shocked when I came out of my home about fifteen minutes later to find it had been smashed, and any metallic parts (tuning keys, tone and volume pots, wiring, the truss rod that strengthens the neck etc) had been taken for recycling.  That was my introduction to the situation in China.

Chinese recyclers near Beijing Road, Guangzhou by Adam Robert Young

These guys are stripping wire collected from discarded electronics and power boxes to be sold on to recyclers. It’s a lot of work for tiny reward.

Wiring for recycling in Guangzhou, China by Adam Robert Young

In my exploration of Guangzhou’s urban villages (a nice way of saying slums), I’ve seen that families work on collecting recyclables together, often sending their children to take the items collected to the individuals who purchase the items.

Bottle boy

Bottle Girl

The ironic thing is that the high level of recycling is actually causing both environmental and health problems here in China.  The town of Guiyu, here in Guangdong province, has gained international recognition as the dumping ground for the world’s electronics.  Discarded electronic goods are sent from developed countries such as the US and European nations and then dissembled by locals using primitive methods in attempts to extract components that can be reused, as well as elements such as gold, silver and copper.  Sadly, the techniques used to do this expose the locals to highly toxic compounds present in the components, and these chemicals have also seeped into the soil, contaminating groundwater in the area.  Some consequences arising from this include about 88% of children in the area suffering from lead poisoning, and a much higher than average rate of miscarriage.  The saddest part is that the workers are exposing themselves to this kind of contamination in order to earn around 17 cents an hour.  I often complain about people comparing the amount of money earned in developing countries with that of developed countries where the cost of living is much higher, but I can confirm that the $1.50 or so these workers earn each long working day is not enough to meet even life’s most basic needs here.

So although the extent of recycling here in China is much greater than in many developed countries, it only reflects some serious issues including poverty and the government’s inability to provide a safe working environment and also to care for the natural environment.  Recycling here is a response to people who have no other way to earn a living to support themselves and their families, rather than the result of a widespread public awareness campaign or general education.  In fact, despite most Guangzhou bins being separated into recyclable and non-recyclable waste, the middle and upper class residents make no effort whatsoever to distinguish between the two, so the unfortunate citizens who sort through the garbage in search of recyclable items have to sort through discarded food scraps and even children’s faeces (that’s a whole other blog post) to get to the items that they’ll eventually sell for a few cents to put rice on the table (and if they’re lucky, there’ll be some vegetables and maybe even meat to go with it).

I hope to be able to visit Guiyu sometime within the next year (although I’m a little concerned about the risk to my own health if I do), and I’ll be sure to post more up to date info about the situation there, but in the meantime, I highly recommend you check out Edward Burtynsky’s images from Guiyu (as well as many of his other photographs).  Burtynsky makes beautiful images that depict some terrible things we’ve done to our planet – appreciating his work is bittersweet, but oh so worthwhile!

I’ll wrap up with one more image, this time it’s the middlemen who buy recyclable goods from the individual collectors and sell them on to the industries that can process them (all images were taken in Guangzhou, China).

Recyclers in Guangzhou by Adam Robert Young