Dirty hands, clean streets: Shanghai’s qīngdàofū

Shanghai Qindaofu tricycle collector
Triciclo, distrito Xuhui, Shanghai
Shanghai Qindaofu tricycle collector
Tricycle, Xuhui district, Shanghai

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I watch in silence as the caretaker piles up cardboard on his three-wheeled bicycle cart. Methodically, one after another, he rips the tape off the boxes and flattens them against his chest with his bare hands. Guō Tāo is 50 years old, but looks much older. Perhaps it’s the parsimonious wrinkles of his smile, or the unceremonious language of his hands. His are dry, scarred and sunburned hands; hands that tell the story of someone who has been doing the same thing for a long time. When the pile is about three metres high, he swings a couple of straps over the top and hooks them under the cart. It looks as if the whole thing is going to come down on one side. He goes around, pushing the structure here and there. Finally, he seems reassured and climbs on the saddle, ready to leave. Or not. At that very moment his wife, who until then had been watching him as attentively as I, shouts something at him, goes inside the house, and reappears with two bundles of old newspapers.

I am sitting on a stool in front of a bicycle parking lot at No 632 Baochang Road, which is both the address and name of a typical Chinese gated community in New Jingan district – formerly known as Zhabei district – north of Shanghai’s city centre. I came to help a friend carry out fieldwork for her PhD project on domestic food waste sorting behaviours in the Shanghai municipality.

“How much money does he get for the cardboard?” I ask. My friend turns to the wife, asks, and relays her message, “She says they give him ¥0.4 per kilo of cardboard.” “And for the newspapers?” “Newspapers are worth more, ¥1.2 per kilo. And ¥1.5 for the plastics,” she adds as I set my eyes on a linen bag full of crushed plastic bottles. “How much money does he think he will make on this round?” “That’s about ¥50,” says the wife. ¥50 today is about £5 or $7. I gauge the size of the pile on the cart. There are still more cardboard boxes inside the parking lot, next to the bag with plastics. Maybe he can make a good ¥100, perhaps even ¥150. But he will need to do more than one trip. No problem, Guō Tāo is used to it.

“His are dry, scarred and sunburned hands; hands that tell the story of someone who has been doing the same thing for a long time.”

“OK. But, surely that’s not their only income. How much they get for their work here, taking care of the bins, guarding the bikes, cleaning the common areas…?” My friend chats for while with the wife. The question is sensitive so I watch her gestures and tone as she searches for the right words. By now the caretaker has climbed off the saddle and come towards us, interested that we are interested. Or perhaps just puzzled by my many questions about something he sees as inconsequential, routinely ordinary. They speak with a thick accent, which makes my friend’s Mandarin somewhat intelligible to my untrained ears. “They get about ¥1500 per month.” His curiosity satisfied, Guō Tāo parts slowly, greeting us with his screeching three-wheeled bike. His wife goes back inside, sits on a chair and plugs her face to her mobile phone. I continue asking more questions to my friend.

“¥1500, that’s about £150 today. It doesn’t seem much to live on,” I comment. “No, it is very little. Sometimes the community committee leaders provide them with free accommodation, like the caretakers in this community, and they don’t have to pay the bills.” That free accommodation is, in Guō Tāo’s and his wife’s case, a small room of six square metres in the community’s bicycle parking lot, where they lived cramped with a bed, a wardrobe, a standing fan, and a big round table with a small radio and a flat 20’ TV set which makes impossible to open the small window facing the gate to the community.  Outside the room, next to the bikes, there is another table, on top of which cardboards and plastics gather dust. There is no kitchen, but a gas cooker on a foldable table by the entrance. There is no sink, shower or bathroom within the parking lot, so I guess they make use of the collective facilities.

£150 per month may not seem a lot – it’s not actually, but the caretakers at No 632 Baochang Road are of those who are better-off. Last month, as part of the same project, we visited another community in Putuo district. After finishing our round of waste sorting and analysis, my friend was on her way to the cleaner’s apartment to pay him for his help when I asked if it was OK for me to come along. “Yeah, OK…” she said, doubting, and then “but we must go quick, we don’t want the community committee to know. They don’t like we pay the cleaners directly”. So, I went to a store just across the street, and bought some juices and two package of Oreos, a small ‘thank you token’ for his help earlier, and we walk to the cleaner’s room.

We walked through a narrow corridor, its walls impregnating us with putrid smells, the floor covered with papers, plastics and cigarette butts, and crossed a small door into a dimly lighted space. As I enter their rent-free apartment, I’m greeted by Zhōu Háng (the smiley cleaner as I like to remember him) and the curious stares of his parents, also cleaners. They seem happy, and confused, to see a lăowài bringing them Oreos and drinks. Their home, an improvised apartment inside the community waste garage, leaves me confounded; to the left of the entrance, there is the mountain of domestic waste from households in the community, a compressing and loading machines, and some empty trash cans. To the right, a table, a blasting fan, and a loud TV tuned into the news channel. At the back of the space, lightened by two faint light-bulbs hanging from the ceiling, I glimpse a separate room with two beds; one double, one single. I can’t see any further, but imagine there is a latrine toilet at the back of one of the rooms. My friend pays the cleaner and we leave. Their curious and silent stares, their wide smiles, and the memory of the putrid smells, saturate my memory for a few days.

Shanghai Qindaofu, styrofoam
Shanghai, night collection of styrofoam

It is not uncommon in Shanghai, and in China for that matter, to see men and women, often at night, tumbling trash cans to the floor and sifting through the rubbish for recyclables. These are the same men and women one sees cycling past on rusted, electrically propelled three-wheeled carts, carrying all sorts of materials tied up in unprecedented, and hard-to-imagine equilibrium. They carry plastics, tins and metals, cardboard, newspapers and magazines, polystyrene containers, all sorts of glass, e-waste, construction debris and even green waste. One gets used to seeing them, a part of the urban landscape. I grew up seen cleaners, waste pickers and scavengers carrying cardboard on carts pulled by frail donkeys; “They are like the cartoneros back home,” I usually hear myself saying to my Chinese friends. Yet, I never took a step closer. I never actually stopped to listen to them. To learn about them.

In this part of the world, these men and women are known as qīngdàofū (清道夫), which are words for street cleaners, itinerary garbage collectors, tinkers, waste scavengers and fly-by-night waste pickers. Some work within communities, where they are provided with some sort of accommodation – as is the case of Guō Tāo, Zhōu Háng and their families – and others, many, work in the streets. They are also known as zabbaleen in Egypt, kabariwallas in India, cartoneros and cirujas in Argentina, cachureros in Chile, hurgadores in Uruguay, pepenadores and buscabotes in Mexico, basuriegos, traperos and chatarreros in Colombia, chamberos in Ecuador, and buzos in Costa Rica, hojalateros in Spain, basureros in The Philippines.

Regardless of what they are called or where they work, theirs is a labour-intensive, low-technology, low-paid, unrecorded and unregulated, job. In Shanghai, it is often carried out by older individuals, families who are for the major part illiterate, and immigrants from more rural areas. Unless they are specifically hired by a residential association to work in a community, they are self-employed and have little or no formal legal relationship with the municipal authorities or the recyclables traders. Occasionally, they may be hired for specific sports or cultural events, and that’s when they become the focus of media attention – as it happened during the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

“They carry plastics, tins and metals, cardboard, newspapers and magazines, polystyrene containers, all sorts of glass, e-waste, construction debris and even green waste. One gets used to seeing them, a part of the urban landscape.”

In China, waste pickers remain largely outside the formal system and are at the lower echelon of the informal recycling sector, which comprises refuse and recycling collection and processing centres, waste collection cooperatives, middlemen such as craftsmen, brokers, traders and wholesalers, and industries buying the raw materials. Basically, the higher up in the ladder, the higher the value of the materials.

Being at the bottom, waste pickers are often exploited by recyclable traders, manufacturing industries and community leaders, the latter often charging fees to even access waste in residential areas. The qīngdàofū also face regular harassment and extortion from both the police and the municipal authorities, with much of the recent public policies and regulations relating to the sector being characteristically negative and repressive. The vulnerability of many waste pickers is further worsened by their status as immigrants, which means reduced access to social services. This is no small issue as the nature of the job is a guarantee for the development of occupation related health problems such as musculo-skeletal problems, respiratory and gastro-intestinal conditions (Wilson 2006).

Despite these unhygienic, unpleasant, humiliating, and hazardous working conditions, in a city like Shanghai, where the 26 million or so residents produce 7.36 million tonnes of domestic waste per day (IOSM 2014), the lack of an efficient and integrated formal waste management system have made the informal recycling sector a social issue, but also a necessity. Recent studies have estimated that 17 to 50% of domestic waste is recycled through this channel (Wilson 2009; Linzner and Salhofer 2014).

Nowadays, the informal recycling in China is driven by the existence of a resale market for the materials; while exact figures are not available, many major Chinese manufacturing industries still depend on the availability of cheap secondary raw materials. Although industries have been importing more and more recyclables from Europe and other regions, locally sourced plastics, metals and cardboard remain a significant resource. Furthermore, the informal sector also helps reduce costs of formal waste collection and transportation, and also provides an abundant supply of work with minimal expenditure per capita investments and infrastructure.

“… in a city like Shanghai, where the 26 million or so residents produce 7.36 million tonnes of domestic waste per day (IOSM 2014), the lack of an efficient and integrated formal waste management system have made the informal recycling sector a social issue, but also a necessity.”

It hasn’t always been like this. Between the 1950-80s, the collection and re-utilization of all usable ‘wastes’ as raw materials was efficiently managed owing to the scarcity of resources. Back then, the Ministry of Commerce was in charge of a massive recovery system for both industrial and municipal wastes with state-run material recovery companies (MRCs) in every city, and residents in urban areas would regularly take their reusable materials to these MRCs. Since the 1980s, the MCRs have been rapidly in decline, as has the habit of sorting waste materials; only a small part of residents still continue the practice of selling reusable and recyclable materials to itinerant waste collectors (Reference Here).

Thus, residents’ sorting behaviours have become a central factor for the development of sustainable municipal waste management systems with high recycling rates, a policy priority for national, regional and local governments (Wilson et al. 2009). Over the past 15 years, several legislations and pilot schemes have been developed to tackle waste sorting at the source. Examples of these are the Law on Circular Economy Promotion which includes a legal framework on waste reduction, reuse and recycling, or Shanghai’s policy on the promotion of domestic waste sorting and reduction at the source, that is at the communities’ households, effective since May 2014 (Li 2016). Local policies have also been accompanied by specific provisions within the country’s latest 5-year plans and government-led multi-city waste sorting pilot projects, such as the 2000 pilot project launched at the eight major cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Guilin, Xiamen, Hangzhou.

Many of these policies have not yet proven successful. However, most of them target the sorting of domestic food waste by individual residents, not the sorting, collection and recycling of other materials. This is precisely because the informal recycling sector ‘works’, and quite efficiently it seems; replacing it with an inadequate formal waste management system could threaten the livelihoods of millions of people. In Shanghai, there have been some tepid moves to regulate local garbage collection practices, such as the 2003 pilot project launched by the Shanghai Public Sanitation Bureau and which aimed to reduce fly-by-night waste scavengers by providing uniforms and a fixed salary to 650 immigrant workers across 30 communities in the Huangpu district. While this initiative has now extended to other districts, many are still waste picking and scavenging outside the system.

Guō Tāo’s and Zhōu Háng are qīngdàofū and their hands are dirty. That’s OK because the streets of Shanghai are clean.

 Further reading:

Shanghai Regulates Garbage Collecting, China Internet Information Center. 23 July, 2003. Available at: http://www.china.org.cn/english/MATERIAL/70682.htm

Wilson, D.C., Velis, C., and Cheeseman, C. (2006). Role of informal sector recycling in waste management in developing countries, in Habitat International. Vol. 30: 797–808.

Wilson, D.C., Araba, A.O., Chinwah, K., and Cheeseman, C.R. (2009). Building recycling rates through the informal sector, in Waste Management. Vol. 29: 629-635.

Shanghai Issues Rules for Domestic Waste Separation and Reduction, Information Office of Shanghai Municipality (IOSM). 23 April, 2014. Press Conference. Available at: http://en.shio.gov.cn/presscon/2014/04/23/1153140.html

Linzner, R. and Salhofer, S. (2014). Municipal solid waste recycling and the significance of informal sector in urban China, in Waste Management & Research. Vol. 32(9): 896–907.

Ways Forward from China’s Urban Waste Problem, The Nature of Cities, 1 February 2015 (by Judy Li) Available at: http://www.thenatureofcities.com/2015/02/01/ways-forward-from-chinas-urban-waste-problem/

Fei, F., Qua, L., Wena, Z., Xueb, Y., and Zhanga, H. (2016). How to integrate the informal recycling system into municipal solid waste management in developing countries: Based on a China’s case in Suzhou urban area, in Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Vol. 110: 74-86.


Bicycling and recycling in Shanghai: Riding with Shanghai’s ‘rubbish entrepreneurs’, Financial Times, 15 March 2010 (by Patti Waldmeir). Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7906a88a-3005-11df-8734-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=intl

Government Policies:

MOC, 2006. Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic China, Suggestions onestablishing the complete and advanced recycling systems of discarded goods.(in Chinese).

MOC, 2007. Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic China, Measures for theadministration of recyclable resources recycling. (in Chinese).

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