Sort waste to ease garbage col­lec­tors’ bur­den

China Daily - - COMMENT - By ZHANG ZHOUXIANG The au­thor is a writer with China Daily. zhangzhoux­i­[email protected]­

“Bei­jing pro­duces 17,400 tons of garbage every day, but the lo­cal garbage pro­cess­ing plants can process only 10,400 tons of them. Un­less the gap is cov­ered, the me­trop­o­lis would be sur­rounded by garbage four years later.” A me­dia out­let made this pre­dic­tion in 2014.

It has not come true, how­ever. Why? Be­cause lo­cal garbage col­lec­tors, more than 100,000 of them, cov­ered the gap — with their hands, lit­er­ally. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, garbage col­lec­tors can process 4 mil­lion tons of the 7 mil­lion tons of garbage Bei­jing pro­duces every year, and thus can help re­cy­cle tens of thou­sands of tons of re­us­able ma­te­ri­als.

Without them, the un­pro­cessed garbage would have cov­ered 11,900 square me­ters of land, and pro­duced more than 70,000 cu­bic me­ters of dirty, even toxic, liq­uid which could have per­co­lated to the un­der­ground water ta­ble. The re­sul­tant water and soil con­tam­i­na­tion would be be­yond es­ti­ma­tion.

Bei­jing’s garbage col­lec­tors work the tra­di­tional but la­bo­ri­ous way. They carry a bag, use their bare hands to search through the garbage to look for ev­ery­thing that is re­us­able. They col­lect empty plas­tic bot­tles, used pa­per, even nails, put them in sep­a­rate bags, and then sell them to com­pa­nies that re­cy­cle and turn them into new ma­te­ri­als.

Once the garbage col­lec­tors are through with their painstak­ing work, the re­main­ing garbage could be safely burned, be­cause they metic­u­lously re­move ev­ery­thing such as plas­tic and me­tals that is harm­ful and causes high pol­lu­tion when burned.

Garbage col­lec­tors not only pre­vent pol­lu­tion, but also save large quan­ti­ties of re­sources. Ac­cord­ing to China Non­fer­rous Metal In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion’s es­ti­mates, re­cy­cling of me­tals saved 110 mil­lion tons of coal and 9 bil­lion tons of min­eral re­sources for China be­tween 2001 and 2011, and garbage col­lec­tors made a ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to this re­cy­cling process.

Yet the work­ing en­vi­ron­ment for garbage col­lec­tors is ex­tremely un­hy­gienic. Since many peo­ple do not sort garbage at home, garbage col­lec­tors have to sep­a­rate me­tals and plas­tics from fish bones, eggshells, even used toi­let pa­per. The stench in the garbage dumps is hellish. In the sum­mer, they are of­ten swarmed by flies and have to pick the re­us­able ma­te­ri­als from rot­ting ma­te­ri­als full of mag­gots.

Haz­ards such as bro­ken glass and other sharp ob­jects are com­mon, as they are all mixed up with the re­us­able ma­te­ri­als. In 2016, a photo of a garbage col­lec­tor’s hands with at least two dozen cuts caused by bro­ken glass went vi­ral on­line.

That’s the most ironic and painful part of a garbage col­lec­tor’s life: de­spite mak­ing ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to China’s waste pro­cess­ing, they con­tinue to suf­fer be­cause many peo­ple refuse to de­velop the habit of sort­ing garbage at home.

The prob­lem is that, if peo­ple refuse to sort garbage at home, Bei­jing’s garbage col­lec­tors may give up the haz­ardous work. An of­fi­cial from the Bei­jing Mu­nic­i­pal Com­mis­sion of City Man­age­ment said the num­ber of garbage col­lec­tors in Bei­jing dropped from 150,000 in 2009 to 100,000 in 2014, and it might drop fur­ther if peo­ple don’t change their habits.

As so­cial wel­fare im­proves, many young peo­ple might pre­fer to live on wel­fare al­lowances in­stead of work­ing amid haz­ards, flies and mag­gots, and a deathly stench. Worse, un­like street clean­ers, garbage col­lec­tion is not con­sid­ered a for­mal job, and most garbage col­lec­tors have no so­cial se­cu­rity.

If garbage col­lec­tors stop work­ing be­fore Bei­jing man­ages to set up a modern garbage sort­ing sys­tem, the city might find it­self sur­rounded by garbage one day. News re­ports say Shang­hai is amend­ing its reg­u­la­tion on garbage. The new draft, sub­mit­ted to the lo­cal leg­is­la­ture, em­pha­sizes the role of every res­i­dent in garbage sort­ing, start­ing from home. Let us hope Bei­jing, for once, will fol­low the ex­am­ple of Shang­hai — for the sake of the en­vi­ron­ment and to make the work of garbage col­lec­tors less dan­ger­ous and painful.

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