Outside an apartment complex on Chengdu's northeast side, on a cold and wet October day, Lin* is struggling to work and talk at the same time. "I get up at 8 a.m. every day," she says, sorting through a pile of junk and pulling out a piece of cardboard. "Then I work until about one or two in the afternoon. I do this every day. I don't have weekends. I don't take days off. The only time I ever take a break is when it's raining."
To her left is an old bicycle with a cart attached. She has placed her day's worth of collections in the back—piles of cardboard and other papers stacked and tied neatly, dozens of bottles put together in neat little rows, and other assorted odds and ends. She has collected these by making a near-10-mile circuit that starts on Chengdu's eastern side and takes her past UESTC, in the northeast, and then back down to where she lives, at Erxian Bridge, near Chengdu University of Technology.
In her mid 30s, with dark skin and a smile that always stays slightly askew, Lin is not shy about her profession, even though many might look down on it. To her, it's just a way of life, and, more importantly, one that pays reasonably well. "A piece of cardboard," she says, "is worth three mao for one jin; newspapers are six mao, and beer bottles three mao. On average, I can make about 30RMB a day, but if the business is really good I can bring in maybe 50RMB." At 30RMB a day, she will make roughly 900RMB a month—enough to meet her daily needs while still saving.
Lin says that each residential community she goes to usually has seven to eight other collectors, each trying to earn their day's living. Although competitive at times, they are mostly on good terms with each other and, if they are having a particularly good day, might even share the items they've collected.
On another October day, also cold and wet, Zhang is sitting on the ground against a thick concrete wall, just five blocks from where I spoke to Lin. In front of him are half a dozen blue barrels of trash that he has just spent about 12 hours sifting through. Like Lin, he collects other people's waste. Unlike her, he barely scrapes by.
Short and wiry, he wears simple blue slippers and the ubiquitous worn, three-piece suit. His eyes are sharp but tired; his speech clear but drawn. He talks about his family—a wife, a 30-year-old son, and a 25-year-old daughter—all of whom are also trash collectors. "Even their spouses do the same thing," he says. "We're all trash collectors, in one form or another."
Zhang's fortunes are not quite as good as Lin's. Every day he makes just over 10RMB—in a month he might make about 300RMB. He accomplishes this by working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., sometimes going home as late as 8 p.m. Even though by national standards of income Zhang is deeply impoverished, he says that he makes enough to meet his food and housing needs. Both Zhang and Lin go to the same reclamation center at Erxian Bridge (near where Lin lives), and they receive the same amount of money for each item they turn in.
How could two people in roughly the same line of work and the same situation have such vast disparities in their income?
The answer is largely due to their collection process. Lin cycles around the city, entering residential complexes. People in these places know her and often have recyclables ready for her. Not only does this allow her to move quickly, it also means that she gets first pick of the goods, giving her access to the more valuable items.
Zhang, at 57 years old, is quite a bit older than Lin, and it is more difficult for him to make a large circuit by bike. He mostly stays in one place and goes through trash bins, meaning that he will not collect anything that people normally give to collectors like Lin. What remains for him are the things people forget about—soda cans or beer bottles. It is not as easy for him to find large amounts of more valuable materials, such as newspapers.
Regardless of what they earn, both Lin and Zhang are highly restricted from opportunities in Chengdu. They both lack a Chengdu hukou (household registration permit), meaning that neither of them enjoy the full legal benefits of being Chengdu citizens—the right to own a home, to send their children to school, or to have state-provided medical insurance. For Zhang, the lack of free medical care is the most difficult aspect of not possessing a hukou, as his meager daily earnings are not nearly enough to cover expensive medical bills.
These two trash collectors are, essentially, illegal residents of this city, living on the fringes both socially and economically. In Chengdu and throughout China, there are thousands of people in the same situation: some, like Lin, who are relatively prosperous, and some, like Zhang., who are living on a thin line between subsistence and abject poverty. Altogether, they form a unique stratum of China's population: one that survives upon the waste of others.
*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.