The Activist
Oct 2016
<em>(Photo by ISO staff) </em>

Wu Ka-ming—Waste and Life

1. Shuileng village in Beijing is the survey subject in your second book, The Life of Waste. What can you tell us about the community there? 

Shuileng village is an ‘urban-rural integration area’ situated beyond the 6th Ring Road in Beijing. There you can find large and small waste storage and disposal facilities as well as scavengers’ homes. At the start of my research in 2007, there were altogether 25 scavenger families living in five large compounds and several small ones. Hailing from the mountain areas, they are considered migrant workers. Unlike the factory workers in the city, these scavengers have no labour insurance or boarding and lodging, nor are they entitled to any formal resident status or operating licence. 

2. How did such a community come into existence?

Over the last two to three decades, China’s urban population has been expanded by its rapid economic growth. As Western materialism catches on in Chinese cities, city dwellers are ensnared by rampant consumerism and wasteful lifestyles. Even though more and more waste disposal facilities have been built across the country, the problem has remained out of control. Eventually, beyond the usual waste disposal system, little communities emerged on the outskirts of cities, making a living out of garbage collection. These people are known variously as ragpickers, waste buyers, scavengers, or second-hand dealers, etc. 

<em>A scavengers’ site at Shuileng village in Beijing</em>

3. You have referred to waste collectors as ‘pioneers in environmental protection’. Can you elaborate further on that? 

Before all kinds of waste end up at a landfill site, they are collected and stored in the waste collectors’ homes for sorting and initial cleaning. The bundled waste will then be transported to other waste processing facilities. This is how the waste collectors help our cities ‘detox’, keeping things in society ‘in perfect order’. More importantly, they are able to separate useful materials from what people usually consider waste and sell them to upline collection points. Such materials will end up in the recycling factories, playing an irreplaceable role in reducing landfill waste and recycling waste. 

<em>Migrant workers living among the garbage lying around</em>

4. As an anthropologist, what are your motivation and objectives in your research on the waste collectors? 

Urban-rural integration area was a topic I had never touched upon. It is not a city or a village within a city, nor is it a rural space. What interests me is the scavengers’ site in it. How did all the waste materials get dumped there? After detailed analyses, my collaborator, Zhang Jieying, and I finally zeroed in on our theme: ‘life of waste’. There is so much waste generated in our lives and some people just live among the wastes of our own making. Instead of vanishing into thin air, the wastes will enter another space, getting entangled with other lives in different ways. My aim is to re-examine China’s urbanization and the environment from the perspective of waste economy and space. 

5. What did you find most soul-stirring during your visits there? 

The scavengers’ site. I had never thought that in what was supposed to be a living place, garbage would be seen piled up everywhere. We usually went there in the freezing winter, when temperatures dropped to below minus 10 degrees Celsius, without heating at all. In summer, especially after rain, the site would be covered in puddles of green, stinking water, and the clammy atmosphere filled with irritating and putrid smells of food and industrial wastes. While talking to us, the respondents would keep picking and cleaning waste materials amid much clangour and banging. The kids would play among the wastes. Somehow they would manage by instinct to stay away from sharp objects. I could not help but be struck by the absurdity and grotesquery of it all: these are the people without a voice, living at the lowest rung of the social ladder and among the garbage lying around. It is they who pay the price for our consumerism and our damage to the environment. 

<em>All kinds of waste are collected and stored in the collectors’ homes for sorting and initial cleaning</em>

6. Why has waste recycling in China become such a big business? 

The alarming waste phenomenon is not exclusive to China but, given its enormous population, all sorts of phenomena in the country tend to be blown out of proportion. If China continues to follow the consumerist trend in the developed countries, its waste production will only increase in time. On the other hand, the developed countries are unwilling to face their waste problem at home. Their wastes are sent across the Atlantic by the shipload to China. It is not surprising that China’s waste-recycling sector has a huge amount of garbage from the West to handle. However, large-scale recycling businesses, particularly ship demolition and paper recycling, also wreak serious havoc on the environment. 

7. Does that mean waste recycling is not the solution? 

The concept of waste recycling is sound but the operating cost is too high. In the end, the ultimate solution lies in waste reduction at source. We live in an age of consumerism where we are bombarded with product information—what is good for us or what makes us look good, be it hair conditioner, fabric softener, or the latest mobile phone models—as if these are things we cannot do without. But only good sense can help us make the right decisions. 

<em>(Photo by ISO staff) </em>

8. Any personal hopes or suggestions regarding sustainable development for the CUHK campus?

The university is a training ground for green citizens. CUHK not only possesses a beautiful campus but also a vision to make it sustainable. But of course there is always room for improvement. For example, can we go digital for all kinds of documents? Can we lay down clear objectives regarding carbon emission or water usage? During a recent visit to the University of California, I noticed that after a prolonged drought, quite a few water-saving measures had been implemented on campus, including the introduction of vacuum toilets or using alcohol-based handrubs to replace running water. For the sake of earth’s future, we should all take precautions before we run out of resources. 

Wu Ka-ming is an assistant professor at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at CUHK.



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