Slideshow: Living on scraps

Beijing’s informal recyclers – often new arrivals from the countryside – make a priceless, though unacknowledged, contribution to the city. Here, Chen Liwen introduces a series of photos depicting their way of life.

Recycling has a very long history in China. The beginning of the founding era of the People’s Republic of China was marked by a scarcity of materials and reusing resources came to occupy an important position in people’s lives, both at work and at home. A precondition of resource re-use is the recovery of reusable materials, and people who collect these materials are often referred to as waste-pickers, or scavengers.

China’s reforms of the late 1970s heralded the rise of the market economy – and recycling has proved no exception: from the 1990s onwards, the recycling industry has gradually marketised, and huge numbers of migrant workers have entered this sector in order to eke out a living in Beijing. Indeed, as barriers to entry are low, this occupation – generally looked down upon by Beijing residents – has become the first choice among many labourers arriving in the capital from the countryside.

According to conservative estimates, Beijing has approximately 100,000 waste-pickers. Every day, they buy small amounts of reusable materials from individual households and work units, which are then sorted and transported to recycling collection centres by the city’s fourth and fifth ring roads. In these places, you can find almost every imaginable kind of reusable material discarded during the course of our everyday lives.

Waste-pickers play an essential role in Beijing’s waste collection and recycling system, but their immense contribution to the city does not gain the recognition it deserves. In fact, this group is often regarded as an unstable element of society. Their living and working conditions and the education their children receive betray the low level of understanding and respect afforded them by the city.

Chen Liwen is a researcher at Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle.