Beijing's Latest Olympic Crackdown: Recyclers

Video by Martin Connolly

The other day, as my friend and I were on our way to sell a load of plastic bottles and paper boxes to our local recycling man, we were stopped by one of our vigilant neighbors. "Whoa, he's not there! He won't be back for two months!" The reason was a refrain heard often in these strange days: "Ao yun hui," or Olympics.

After targeting dissidents and fun -- as well as factories, smoking and plastic bags -- the authorities have ordered a crackdown on the city's independent recyclers, who, as we described previously, and as the video above shows, are the lifeblood of China's waste-management industry.

Unlike in the US, where we leave our recycling on the curb, in Chinese cities, recyclers come to your neighborhood offering small sums for recyclable waste. It's a DIY, down-and-dirty business, and it's incredibly efficient at managing the country's waste stream. But to the authorities, eager to save face for the Olympics, it's mostly just dirty. Wang Weiping, a city government advisor quoted in this Reuters article, submitted a report recommending that officials "convince" the recyclers to leave: "The workers process up to a third of Beijing's trash and have a "positive effect" on society, but most have criminal records, leave second-hand environmental pollution, and pose a health threat."

That "health threat" hasn't been a problem before and probably won't be mentioned after the Games are done.

"According to our studies," said Wang, "more than 70 percent have contracted infectious diseases, such as dysentery, hepatitis and typhoid, and can easily infect others in the city."

The recyclers are unlicensed, and exist at the fringe, much as they do in developing countries around the world. Beijing might take a page from recycling super city Curitiba, Brazil, or Buenos Aires which as TreeHugger reports this week reached an agreement with the city's cartoneros to improve recycling and waste collection operations, while improving the well-being and recognizing the efforts of the recyclers.

Already, trucks have been banned from the city's roads, making it difficult to transport waste to suburban recycling centers. But many of these centers have also been closed by the authorities.

And by August 8, when the Olympics begin, more than 170,000 of Beijing's migrant recyclers will have left the city. That means a bevy of lost incomes, which have already been hurting due to rising inflation. As Martin Connelly reports in his video report above, the profit margin for the average recycler is only 3 cents per kilogram.

And while recycling bins have been set up at sports venues, it is unclear what the government's policy will mean for recycling in Beijing during what officials call the "Green" Olympics.

Despite the hardships, as usual in China, where there's a will there's a way. After informing us that the recycling man was not around, my neighbor offered to take the paper and plastic himself, so he could bring it to one of the few recycling plants that remain open. We handed our pile over to him. He and two other neighbors spilled everything on the ground and proceeded to pick through it like a pack of treasure seekers.

Reuters via NYT: Beijing Recyclers Discarded in Games Security Sweep
Current TV: Recycling in Beijing
TH: New Garbage Management Plans for Buenos Aires to Involve Cartoneros
Human Rights Watch: China

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