Dump Trash, Add Scavengers, Mix and Get a Big Mess

April 3, 2006 – Copyright The New York Times
Shanghai Journal
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SHANGHAI, March 28 ó Song Tiping, a peasant from rural Jiangsu Province, and Bernie Kearsley-pratt, an Australian executive, would not at first glance seem to have much in common, and they do not, except for one thing: both were drawn here by the unlikely financial promise of garbage, towering mountains of refuse that attest to this city’s status as a raging boomtown. And now they spend their days in a cat-and-mouse game, Mr. Song joining throngs of poor Chinese scavenging in the trash and Mr. Kearsley-pratt, who manages Shanghai’s largest municipal dump, trying to keep them out.
The Australian, who works for a French company that is helping manage this city’s garbage, says his difficult job is made all the harder ó indeed on some days he himself would say impossible ó by the cruel fact that even in the heartland of a booming China, peasants can make far more money collecting plastic trash bags, tin cans and the rubber soles of shoes than they can as farmers or ordinary day laborers.
Most days Mr. Song, who came to Shanghai seeking a way to pay the hefty tuition fees for his eldest daughter, who had been admitted to one of the country’s best high schools, spends several hours dodging monstrous earthmoving equipment in the landfill, one of the largest in Asia, to pick trash.
Were it not for dangers of the job, like being crushed by a bulldozer, inhaling noxious gases while wading knee-deep in fetid refuse or being beaten by warring gangs of scrap pickers for the mere prize of an unbroken bottle, it might even be considered a good job.
“We worked really hard as laborers before, doing 12- to-15-hour days for a mere few hundred yuan,” about $35, Mr. Song said. “You have to work even if you are sick or tired. Here we are working for ourselves, and there is a lot more freedom ó four to five hours a day, plus we can earn a lot more.”
Each morning, on average, 6,300 tons of garbage arrives by barge from the central city. Mr. Kearsley-pratt’s company, Onyx, won an international bidding competition in 2003 to replace an old municipal landfill next door, which had observed almost no environmental precautions, with a state-of-the-art dump ó a fenced-in area slightly larger than New York’s Central Park. To do so, Onyx has invested millions of dollars in heavy equipment, environmental measures and training.
The plan was for a plant that would safeguard the water table and produce enough natural gas to power a small city ó in short, the cleanest, safest, most modern landfill imaginable ó until the scavengers showed up. They came in ones and twos, like Mr. Song and his wife, and in roving gangs, organized according to their place of origin in the poor and far-flung Chinese countryside. Now, according to all sides in what appears to be a mounting dispute, what they have is one fine mess.
“Everyone has a big challenge when they come to China,” Mr. Kearsley-pratt said. He warmed to his subject slowly, talking about how no living-room couch, no matter how abused, would ever make it from a Shanghai curbside to his dump, because someone needier than the owner would quickly haul it away.
Finally, he got to the meat of the problem: the scavengers who descend each day upon his dump like freebooters on a diamond mine. “As soon as you tip the truck there will be 40 or 50 people running all about the machines ó quite big machines,” he said. “I don’t have the statistics, but quite a few people have been crushed like this.”
Under the circumstances, tempers sometimes flare. With darkness approaching, as crews of Mr. Kearsley-pratt’s workers in hard hats and orange jumpsuits rushed to lay enormous sheets of blue tarpaulins over a flat field of freshly laid garbage to discourage the pickers from coming onto the grounds at night, a female scavenger in her 50’s approached a group of foreigners taking pictures of the scene.
“We are just trying to make a livelihood, to eat,” she shouted. “Unless you have come to help us survive, we don’t want your attention.”
All about, as Mr. Kearsley-pratt looked on helplessly, scavengers were loading their day’s haul onto pushcarts, onto rickety wagons hitched to the back of motorcycles to be sorted out offsite and sold to buyers who specialize in different kinds of refuse, whether rubber, plastic, aluminum or tin.
“Last year my daughter was admitted to high school and we have to pay 10,000 yuan for her registration,” Mr. Song said. In addition to that, the equivalent of $1,250, he said, he also has to pay $125 for his second daughter’s school. “We don’t know where else to get jobs to support our daughters’ education,” he said, “and if not for this, there is no hope for us.”
Zuo Xilian, another garbage picker, said he was working his way through college while supporting a 60-year-old father in fragile health. “Don’t be surprised, it’s normal,” said Mr. Zuo, 23, who is from Anhui Province.
The landfill’s management has thought about sitting down with the scavengers to cut a deal that would allow them to keep picking without endangering themselves or the dump’s operations. But the potential bonanza of the trash has proved, like a gold rush, impossible to manage. The dimensions of the problem are on clear display most days, when 120 huge trucks per hour, freshly loaded with garbage from the barges, rumble down the plant’s access road with squadrons of trash pickers on motorbikes following in their wake.
The city is vague about its plans for dealing with the trash pickers, saying only that they will be “phased out” eventually. “Right now, we don’t have a city regulation on scavenging,” said Wu Xiwei, an official of the city sanitation bureau.
Zhu Feixiang, 46, a scavenger who lives on the edge of the dump on a trash-strewn plot with sheep and dogs and more old plastic bags than you’ve ever seen, doubts the city will stop him or any others. “They can call the police, but it’s not against law or regulation to pick garbage,” he said. “We don’t steal. We don’t rob. We only make a living. Besides, recycling garbage benefits the nation.”
Mr. Zhu, who leads a band of trash pickers from Anhui Province that other scavengers describe in fearsome terms, stopped raking the garbage blowing around in his yard to contemplate that for a moment. “Plus, we’re dirty and we stink, so the police would never take us in,” he said.

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