Where have all the scrap peddlers gone?

China's Trash Is Getting Dirtier

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Over the weekend, for the second time in as many years, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in China's southern Bolou County to oppose the construction of a proposed trash incinerator. The protest was ironic, given that such facilities are needed precisely because ordinary Chinese like them are producing too much garbage for landfills to handle. At the same time, the demonstrators have reason to be concerned: The fumes coming out of any new incinerator are likely to be more toxic than ever before.

That's because of China's dwindling army of trash pickers and scrap peddlers. As recently as 2012, food and other organics made up roughly 70 percent of China's solid waste. Some would be sold into the agricultural sector for feed or fertilizer, while the rest would be trucked out to sprawling landfills on the edges of China's cities. The remaining 30 percent rarely made it to those same landfills. Rather, scrap peddlers would pull the material out before it got into garbage trucks, then would sell it into the recycling system. It was a beautiful example of entrepreneurship evolving to meet a social need.

Now Chinese are producing a rapidly expanding volume of trash. According to the World Bank, Chinese tossed out 0.79 kilograms of municipal solid waste per capita every day in 1999. By 2012, that number had grown to 1.02 kilograms per capita per day, according to a more recent report. That represents almost a 30 percent increase in 13 years -- enough to make China the world's biggest generator of solid waste. And the problem is only going to grow: The World Bank estimates that by 2025, Chinese will throw away 150 percent more per capita than they did in 1999.

Nobody truly knows how many scrap peddlers live in China (they tend to be migrants). In 2005, the World Bank estimated their number at 2.5 million. For the decade-plus that I've reported on China's recycling industry, I've heard academics and government officials use the figure 10 million. Whatever the actual numbers, their impact is immense, as was demonstrated in 2008 when Beijing officials decided to crack down on the city's 170,000 peddlers in advance of the Olympics. The results were disastrous: Trash piled up, resulting in a quiet lifting of the policy before the games started.

Now, just as the need is greater than ever, the ranks of peddlers seem to be dwindling. On Tuesday, I spoke with Chen Liwen, a researcher with the environmental NGO Nature University in Beijing. Chen is one of the world's leading experts on Chinese scrap peddlers (I've accompanied her on research dives in Beijing). She immediately started describing how skyrocketing land values were changing China's trash ecosystem. "Remember how the scrap markets were all in the city? Now they're being demolished for real estate developments," she sighs. "When the recycling markets are destroyed, the waste pickers find other jobs and the cheap recycling stuff -- glass, plastics, and wood -- goes into the landfill."

Even worse, those same high land prices are preventing municipalities from expanding their landfills to meet demand. So instead they're building incinerators. Chen told me she's visited 10 Chinese trash incinerators this year (on her own and usually without invitation). "The garbage is 50 to 60 percent organic," she says. "It's not 70 percent anymore, and it's because nobody is sorting the recycling out."

The consequences are potentially deadly. More trash is being burnt, and more of that trash is made up of nonorganic wastes like plastics that emit dioxins and other noxious, often toxic fumes. In China, those emissions can range as high as 24 times the limits set by the stricter European Union. New EU-style emission standards, adopted on July 1, don't reassure Chen. "If you want to burn at EU standards, you have to build at EU standards." Most of China's incinerators are not so advanced.

For Chinese officials, the decline in the scrap trade means they'll finally have to invest in municipal recycling programs (and, perhaps, composting). In the past, local governments that tried often found themselves unable to compete against the private recycling markets. But now that those markets themselves are evaporating, cities need to get serious about rolling out blue-bin collection programs to pick up the slack. Otherwise they'll probably have to resign themselves to more demonstrations, as citizens protest the fumes pouring out of their local incinerators. It shouldn't be a difficult choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net