I followed waste collectors around Shanghai…

City Hopper

Woken up in the early morning by the urban waste collector’s broadcast “RECYCLE OLD TV, FRIDGE and ACs!!!”, my memory jumped back to the start of my sustainability consulting career, which has linked me so closely to these urban waste recyclers.

I still remember my first day at work, while I was fantasizing about wearing my power-suit and presenting to the corporate bunch from CBD. Then my boss told me to go follow and talk to the recyclers from the streets…

After one year of such field work, I got quite close to the “informal waste economy” and got a much deeper understanding of their value to sustainability.

One day of e-waste collectors in Shanghai

With the “tuk tuk” sound from the motor three wheelers, Shanghai’s e-waste collectors start their days shuttling through small alleys and collecting electronic products that people no longer want. In the afternoon, they will sort out the non-reusable items which will then be uploaded to a truck going to electronic waste recycling plants. After 6pm, all the e-waste collectors will gather at a trading market to sell the items with higher/reusable value. Within a few hours efficient trading, various items will be transported to some second and third tier cities overnight and sold in second-hand stores in the next couple of days.

And Shanghai, will continue to shine fashionably after spitting out all kinds of rubbish.

There are currently four informal trading markets in Shanghai with thousands of collecting hustling through the city maintaining its fancy appearance. However, the middle and upper class often don’t want shabby waste collectors in their neighborhoods and streets. Recently, the city plans to keep them out.

Who keeps the city shinning?

“Without us, even the Huangpu river is not enough to fit all the stuff people buy and throw away.”

I always remembered this quote from one of the collectors we have interviewed. Though it sounds a bit extreme, it actually reflects the extent of the municipal waste issues.

As the infrastructure of modern cities is becoming more and more established, we have been accustomed to the convenience it provides to encourage shopping activities and beyond. We are ignorant of the production and end of life treatment of the products that we carelessly buy. Take food for an example, we are used to buying food that are conveniently packaged in layers of plastics from the supermarkets, completely disconnected to its production process and food waste treatment. The urban population have been losing their awareness of the impact of their lavishing actions on the ecosystem as a whole.

Often invisible are these recyclers, shuttling through neighborhoods to dust off the scraps of the urban keeping the city running as if without consequences.

Looking back

Living in the age of rapid urbanization, people are often busy leaping forward but forget to stop and reflect. People’s lives were a lot more connected to nature in the 80s, resources were valued and made the most out of. The lifestyle back then was in general a lot more sustainable and the economy was a lot more “circular”.

In the end, we mapped out the urban food waste and e-waste ecosystem and summarized our findings in a report. The “dream” finally came true when we presented these findings to the executives at the CBD, where you can rarely spot a waste collector.

About the Writer:

As a sustainability consultant at Collective Responsibility, June explores the challenges and business opportunities for Fortune 500 firms on various environmental and social issues. She has built solid knowledge and on-the-ground research experience on food waste/e-waste/textile waste collection and recycling systems. 

She recently published a report on the topic of Shanghai’s food waste management system.