Every morning, Tian Wen Qui leaves his home under a bridge in Beijing to rummage through city trash cans until nightfall for empty pop bottles, plastic cooking oil containers and soy sauce bottles which he places inside two sacks he carries over his shoulder. On a good day, Tian normally makes $3 after selling his find to one of the city’s numerous garbage recycling stations. The “good days” are now getting few and far between.
A vast empire of rubbish and junk
Trash recycling used to be a multibillion dollar business in China until it was shut down by the worldwide economic crunch and ensuing drop in commodity prices. Empty bottles are now sold at half of last summer’s price.
The decline in the recycling industry has affected the lives of people like Tian, the persons who pay him for his collected waste products, and the manufacturers who convert these recyclables into usable items to be sold in stores and construction areas worldwide. That is why trash from the U.S. and Europe being sold in China are sent back after being refused (no pun intended) by potential clients.
Since the Chinese people consume less than Westerners, 70% of the trash that enter the country to feed its recycling business should come from the outside, said China National Resources Recycling Association spokesman Wang Yong Gang.
Chinese lifestyle basically adheres to thriftiness and austerity, and they will resort to repair things many times over before throwing them away, added Mr. Wang.
The plunge in item prices was very sudden that steel and metal recyclables which arrived in container ships in China’s ports were priced way below than what was tagged when they left the wharves of Los Angeles, New Jersey or Rotterdam.
The port in Hong Kong is now the home of numerous containers full of trash waiting to be claimed and picked up by its owners, said Mr. Wang.
According to the China National Resources Recycling Association, copper scraps, which used to sell for $8,000 a ton in 2007, is now down at $3,000. Tin is now down at $5 per pound from $300 while paper price sank by as much as 80%.
People in the recycling industry used to make money from getting other nations’ trash but hard times are now threatening China’s recyclers from every angle. Gao Zuxue owns and manages a small garbage collection depot with his family.
Gao revealed his depot used to bring in about $450 a month in 2007 when business was booming. Nowadays, $80 is something to be thankful for, Gao said as he stood in a nearly empty room that was once filled with used radiators, old magazines and empty soda bottles.
People now refuse to sell their junk to them because of their buying price which most think as ridiculously low, Gao said.
Who’s taking out the trash?
While some recycling industrialists say that copper and plastic prices have slightly improved, they are still expecting tougher times ahead due to the worsening economic crisis worldwide.
The sentiment is likewise shared by the residents of Bajia Khun, a small town built entirely on trash on Beijing’s outer fringes. Staring at a virtual ghost town surrounded by mountains of stockpiled schoolbooks, magazines and notebooks, Chen Xiaorong, a resident, recalls when hundreds of her neighbors used to make a living here out of other people’s garbage.
According to Chen, people lost quite a fortune on recycling and have decided to return to the countryside. Her family who used to earn $735 a month will still weather it out here on $360.