TALKING TRASH: Hangzhou’s Efforts to Make Waste Management “Clean and Direct” (Informal Sector Not Included)
Since 2009, Hangzhou has implemented a direct system of waste collection, taking rubbish from apartment units and other collection points straight to incineration or landfills. This was done both to streamline the collection process and eliminate small neighborhood transfer stations, long seen as a nuisance to residents due to their persistent odor and attractiveness to pests.
The Hangzhou municipal government also hopes the new system (modeled after Shanghai’s waste management efforts) will minimize the diversion of recoverable resources from the waste stream by the informal sector.
Before, scrap peddlers – who transport obtained scrap and recyclables on three-wheeled trailers pulled by rather ratty bicycles – relied upon nearby, small neighborhood transfer stations for selling their catch. This was because the neighborhood stations often also served as processing and redemption centers, separating and collecting recyclables. As such, transfer stations acted as a critical link between the point of collection (households) and the point of secondary sale (recycling centers on the outskirts of the city). Lacking motorized transport, the informal sector would be crippled by the closure of the local neighborhood stations, it has been reasoned.
Why does eliminating the informal sector matter so much to city officials.
As mentioned in other posts, after waste has been picked over by informal collectors it becomes a significantly less combustible mix. However, by removing up to 30% of a city’s generated MSW, the informal sectors also reduces the city’s waste management burden quite significantly. In the eyes of many municipal officials, however, it is scrap peddlers and not the city that reaps the value of recoverable rubbish at no cost. In the presence of the informal sector, the city loses considerable potential revenue from resource recovery.
On a more basic level, municipal officials tend to regard the informal sector as comprised of dirty, diseased and possibly criminal individuals who, with ratty rubbish rickshaws in-tow, are a blight on modern, developed cities.
Neither Hangzhou, nor any other city in China as far as I have discovered, has considered letting the informal sector coexist alongside the public waste management sector. One way to do this would be to employ a permitting system to better regulate their activities, while extending basic social benefits to permit-holding collectors, in order to incentivize registration and compliance. To date, this has been implemented with considerable success in many cities throughout Asia.
Despite Hangzhou (and Shanghai)’s efforts to shrink the informal waste management sector, there appear to be as many scavengers as ever. Over the last two years, they have just become more resourceful when it comes to getting their wares to the nearest selling point.
In the apartment compound where a friend lives, the security guard saves the cardboard boxes, beer bottles, newspapers and plastic bottles generated by the building’s residents for at least a month.
At the end of the month, he and his wife (who takes a long distance bus in from their hometown in the neighboring province) rent a U-Haul-type truck by the hour and work fast, filling it to the brim. They drive to the nearest center that will accept their mixed recyclables and negotiate the selling price. Each month, after subtracting the cost the truck, he earns about 400 RMB (USD 63.50) from his sales, nearly doubling his salary. Sometimes, he and security other guards in the neighborhood pool their funds and rent the truck together.
I spoke to him one day when he was loading his take. He affirmed to me that changes in the city’s waste management system were making it more difficult to make money from scrap collection, but that they certainly would not stop him. The extra income generated from the activity is simply too precious to him and his family.
Though his story is but one, and therefore not representative of every scrap collector, it speaks loudly to the impact, or lack thereof, that regulatory and system changes have on scrap peddlers, given their economic reliance on the trade of recyclable materials.
In order to make real progress in this area, NEEDigest hopes to see more local governments deploying an integrated waste management planning approach in China.