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Getting Picky on Waste: Why Even China Won't Take Our Trash Anymore


Trash 1

Curiosity led Joshua Goldstein to discover a shadow economy on the outskirts of Beijing. While in China conducting research at the University of Beijing, he noticed that every day around 4pm, a stream of men on bicycles pulling carts loaded with trash would pass by the university’s front gate. 

One day, he hopped on his bicycle and followed them. What he found was a complex unofficial market where used materials such as cardboard, plastic, and metals were purchased by trash dealers who collect and sell the trash for companies to recycle into finished products. In fact, these cyclists streaming past the University of Beijing to the city’s outskirts were part of the city’s vast informal recycling sector. 

Trash 2

Typically, the image we see of Chinese recycling is one of once bucolic communities transformed into dead zones with poisoned streams and air turned into a viscous soup, courtesy of electronics and plastics imported from the West for reprocessing. Desperate peasants in dusty, befouled garments sift through towering mounds of refuse that double as their homes. Their only protection, if any, are thin scraps of fabric transformed into nose coverings to filter the worst of the air pollution that comes with burning the trash that can’t be recycled. This perspective isn’t false, but it is incomplete. 

This perspective ignores “Mr. Zhao,” a man profiled in an upcoming episode of Link TV series “Hot Cities.” Neat and trim in a button down shirt and dark slacks, he is part of the informal recycling collection workforce that populate cities across China. Pickers like Mr. Zhao are the ultimate middlemen, buying used materials like cardboard, plastics, and metals for relatively low prices from local businesses and households, then selling them at higher prices. Goldstein stumbled upon one of these resale markets where the materials are sold as raw materials for regional industries. Absent this informal labor force, this vast mountain of material would end up in landfills. 

“They are coming to the city to make cash to send home,” says Goldstein, now Associate Professor of East Asian History at USC. “In the province that many of these people came from there are high schools that were built largely from the money these people made picking garbage.”  

Mr. Zhao is no exception. A farmer and part-time teacher, he moved his family from a village in the countryside to Shanghai in search of better economic opportunities so he could afford quality schooling for his children. While some people may only make a few dollars a day, “If you find a good place to collect from and sell, you can make maybe $50 or $70 a day,” says Goldstein. “Maybe up to $100 if it’s a really great place.” By comparison, the average Chinese person makes a little more than $11,850 a year, while the average American earns $53,750 annually. 

Although this economy is technically informal – pickers don’t pay taxes, they are at the whims of commodity pricing, and they operate without any kind of social safety net – it feeds the formal economy by providing materials for the State-sanctioned businesses that churn out American cell phones, toys, and cookware. A 2009 study found that the informal sector achieved recycling rates ranging from 20-50 percent. 

Despite the integration of this waste into the formal economy, China's annual municipal or household solid waste rose from 31 million tons in 1980 to 157 million tons in 2009, according to World Health Bank data. Total municipal waste is projected to reach 585 million tons by 2030. While China still lags behind the U.S. in total waste generation (the U.S. generates 254 million tons of trash annually), the country still struggles under the weight of increasingly affluent cities: the more money one has, the more more one creates. 

Trash 5

Only half of all Chinese waste is safely disposed – the remaining half ends up in unregulated, improvised dumps scattered outside of urban centers posing fire risks as well as threats to air and water pollution. Further exacerbating the problem is China’s lack of available land necessary to dispose of the waste. Increasingly, China is turning towards “waste-to-energy" incineration plants that burn the trash, capture the heat, and turn it into electricity. With trash increasing, the government has increased the number of waste-to-energy plants from processing 10 percent of the waste to 30 percent and allows these facilities  to release more pollution than conventional power plants. Consequently, the plants face increasing public opposition within China due to concerns about safety, air quality, and environmental health.

In contrast, the U.S. disposes 99 percent of its municipal or household waste through regulated channels. Roughly 54 percent of U.S. waste winds up in landfills, 11 percent is incinerated, and 35 percent of municipal waste is recycled.  However, while waste is disposed safely in the U.S., much of what passes as recycling is actually shipped to China for processing where the labor is cheaper.

Trash 7 - coffee

In fact, China has become a leading importer of the world’s trash in large part because of the most frequently used form of municipal recycling in the U.S., known as single stream recycling. In this system, one bin is used to recycle different types of material: aluminum cans, paper, and glass bottles (that frequently shatter impregnating everything else). While the process makes recycling collection easier, it also makes the actual act of recycling tougher and more labor intensive. 

Prior to recycling, these materials must be sorted, a process involving not only separating creamy white yogurt containers from green berry containers, but also soda caps from their bottles, and plastic envelope windows from the surrounding paper. Each year the U.S. sends China approximately $500 million worth of plastic alone.   

In 2013, The Guardian reported that China imports an annual 8.1 million tons of discarded plastic, 31 million tons of discarded paper, and 6.4 million tons of steel scraps from Europe. China imports these materials because resources are scarce despite the country’s emergence as a manufacturing powerhouse. 

As a response to this growing industry, China launched “Operation Green Fence”, an expansion and reinforcement of existing regulations, which banned the import of “low quality” foreign garbage such as plastic bags and clamshell containers used for berries because of the difficulty in sorting and recycling, and the frequent cross contamination. These materials were ending up in the same Chinese landfills that are already buckling under the weight of China’s growing domestic trash. Over the first five months in 2013, China rejected over 68,000 tons of plastic recycles from the U.S. 

The severity of the environmental impact of garbage has been recognized only for a few years. As director Wang Jiuliang said in the film Beijing Besieged by Waste, “If you take the environmental costs of recycling into account, you realize it's not all cheap. Why recycle waste in China and not Japan or America? Because environmental costs are not taken into account.”  

It is time, perhaps that we start taking the full environmental cost into account. If we don’t, “In a million years,” says Goldstein, “all that will be left are our plastic bottles and the cockroaches.”

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