Three “Garbage Crusaders” in Modern Cosmopolitan Beijing


Every city needs someone to take care of the garbage. The most resource-efficient way to dispose of urban trash is to recycle and reuse it. But recycling and reuse are more difficult than they sound, especially in cities where residents mix up all kinds of solid wastes.


Every city needs someone to take care of the garbage. The most resource-efficient way to dispose of urban trash is to recycle and reuse it. But recycling and reuse are more difficult than they sound, especially in cities where residents mix up all kinds of solid wastes.


In 1996, encouraged by the nongovernmental environmental education group Global Village of Beijing, the Beijing government tried to begin garbage sorting. A decade has passed, and there has been no obvious improvement except for the heroic deeds of three lonely “garbage crusaders.” What these individuals have experienced and encountered illustrates the predicament of urban solid waste in China.


Song Wanji: On the International Stage

Jiangongnanli, a residential compound of five buildings in Beijing’s Xuanwu District, is known as China’s first “green community.” The compound is regarded as a model for environmentally friendly communities in China and has attracted numerous visitors, including senior foreign officials and journalists. But unfortunately, the actual situation does not live up to its image.

Song Wanji and his wife, peasants from neighboring Hebei province, live in the compound’s underground bicycle storage area. They earn 1,000 RMB (roughly US$125) a month as the residence’s bicycle keepers. They also earn an extra 200 RMB (US$25) monthly for their work sorting garbage for the community.

In 1998, Sherry Liao, president of Global Village of Beijing, met with Zhang Hongsheng, head of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau of Beijing’s Xuanwu District, to discuss ways to promote garbage sorting in the district. Motivated and ambitious, they picked Jiangongnanli as a pilot community where they could develop eco-conscious facilities and implement a mechanism for public participation. They envisioned facilities for energy and water savings, garbage sorting, and other “green” activities, as well as investments in capacity building, including joint meetings among government departments, property management, NGOs, neighborhood committees, and resident representatives. They hoped that volunteer groups would pioneer the environmental protection activities, working with a larger pool of “green families” that would emerge during the process.

Most of the envisioned plans have not turned into reality, but garbage sorting did take off. The property management has played an important role, assuming responsibility for the sorting itself and hiring an on-site sorter. The garbage sorting activities eventually led to the development of a community-wide environmental management system, enabling the community to pass the internationally recognized ISO 14000 Environment Management System standard.

Song Wanji is the community’s garbage sorter. Outside his room are piles of some 12 kilograms of used batteries, which residents toss into a collection box at the compound’s entrance. He has been told that once the piles grow to a certain size, a company will come and collect them. But he has no idea who does the collection, where they plan to ship the batteries, or even if they use any receipts or tracking mechanism. “That’s the property management’s business,” Song says.

Also at the compound’s entrance is a sealed garbage treatment station, connected to a small room that contains a machine for processing domestic waste. Every day, Song unwraps residents’ garbage bags and picks out the food remains. Once he collects roughly 50 kilograms of food waste, he dumps it in the machine, which blends the food into small particles and assists in fermentation. In roughly one year, the machine fills up and the food matter breaks down into organic fertilizer, which will be used to “feed” community greenery.

When asked whether residents make an effort to sort their garbage before it comes to him, Song shakes his head. “Who cares to take all the trouble to do that today? A lot of people did that for the beginning few years. But now, only a few old women might still be doing that at most.” Song doesn’t even know exactly who these resident sorters are, but suggests that the neighborhood committee might know.

Song receives a tiny supplement to his income by collecting the recyclable materials he finds in the garbage and selling them. For a month’s worth of materials, he can earn a couple of dollars. But this extra money has decreased steadily as residents catch on. “People here know they can sell glass, metal, paper, plastic, and old clothes. They won’t throw them away like they used to. The only thing increasing in quantity is plastic bags. I don’t know how to deal with it. Nobody wants them, and they’re very hard to pick out,” he explains.

The competition is becoming fiercer as well. A few old men and women from the community now direct their energies to the compound’s garbage cans. “When they see someone throwing away a cupboard box, they will rush and collect it. When they spot any outside collectors entering their turf, they throw them out,” Song explains. He says some residents aren’t particularly supportive of these “unprofessional” recycling efforts. “Once, a resident cut his old sports shoes into pieces before he threw them away. Maybe they think people like us and what we do have ‘polluted’ their environment,” he observes.

The “Household Committee”: Persevering Against the Odds

Down the Dacheng Alley of Xicheng District lies a small courtyard formed by two surrounding buildings. In the basement is a special office, titled the “Household Committee,” possibly an abbreviation for the “Committee for Households Related to the Education Commission of Xicheng District.” More than 400 households in these two buildings are related somehow to the Education Commission, which initially set up the small office to serve its employees and their families, with functions resembling property management and the neighborhood committees commonly found in urban residential areas. The office later merged with the Dacheng Alley Neighborhood Committee and became a de facto committee for the region.

Two directors, Cui Xiangwen and Zhang Jingyuan, currently head the committee. Describing their work, they note that, “Garbage sorting, community greening, and rainwater harvesting were not supposed to be our business. Our responsibility is to serve as a communications channel between the boss [the Commission] and the residents. Whatever the boss wants to get something done, or has some orders, we will disseminate them to the residents; whatever demands the residents raise, or difficulties they face, we will help take the message to the boss.” But now, Cui and Zhang explain, their major task is environmental protection. “The residents have sorted garbage for eleven years, and they have already got used to doing it. They will feel uneasy if they don’t.”

Credit for this proactive outlook goes to Chen Shufen, the former committee director who initiated garbage sorting in the community. After retiring from Xisi Middle School in 1989, Chen became the committee director, and remained in the post for more than 12 years. “At that time, people thought it was the government’s business to improve the environment. They weren’t aware that they could participate,” said Chen.

It began with a television program on residential garbage sorting, produced by the Global Village of Beijing. The show caught the attention of retired teacher and community resident Wang Tiangyun , who went to the group’s office. She found Sherry Liao and told her that her community’s household committee, headed by Chen Shufen, and her fellow residents were willing to try garbage sorting.

At that time, Liao’s group had been anxious to identify a community for a pilot project. So she and her colleagues give a presentation to Dacheng Alley residents. In a couple of days, committee members used their annual bonus to buy several red plastic bins for use as garbage cans. On December 15, 1996, they wrote a “letter to the residents” on the community’s blackboard, formally announcing the launch of garbage sorting in the community. In this way, Dacheng Alley became the first community in Beijing to sort its garbage.

In reality, however, these efforts have been fruitless. Garbage collectors from Beijing’s environmental and sanitation branches typically collect the community’s sorted garbage and then mix it up with the rest. Because the government has failed to build up a complete chain for garbage disposal and treatment, which would facilitate garbage sorting during the process, residents of Dacheng Alley can do nothing about it. “We can only do our own share,” they lament.

After sorting their garbage for so many years, the only benefit the community gets is the increasing number of garbage cans donated or awarded to them by outside admirers. The ingenious residents have found a new way of using the receptacles: to collect rainwater for greening their gardens.

The “King of Used Batteries”

Wang Zixin believes that with 2.5 million RMB (roughly US$350,000), he could make his business a success. Holding a giant battery in his arms, he stands in the courtyard of the new “economic park for recycling,” an endeavor that Beijing’s Daxing District is flamboyantly constructing. Wang wants to lease a small plot of land here to set up a collection center for used batteries.

Not far from the park lies Beijing’s Anding landfill. Currently, all used batteries collected in the Chinese capital are stored in a row of houses by the landfill. Neighboring Tianjin Municipality has adopted a more extraordinary disposal method: they blend the used batteries with cement and bury them underground, terming the practice “solid sealed storage.”

Clearly, Beijing’s government doesn’t know what to do with the city’s growing mounds of used batteries. But they’ll need to do something soon, especially given the rising pressure from city residents, who have exhibited unusual enthusiasm in collecting used batteries. Nearly every Beijing resident believes that in order to participate in environmental protection, it is important to collect used batteries. So among all of the city’s solid wastes, batteries have caught the most attention.

Wang Zixin used to trade in construction materials. But more than a decade ago, he gave up his old business and devoted himself full time to environmental protection, focusing on recycling old and used batteries. He has been working on technical innovation as well as marketing, having invested the 1 million RMB (US$130,000) earned from his previous business into his new career. A few years ago, he built a waste battery treatment and recycling center in Yi County of Hebei province—but the project was suspended by the local environmental protection bureau because of substandard wastewater discharge.

Lacking the opportunity to operate on a larger scale, the prototype of the recycling machine Wang invented sits idle in the courtyard of a cousin’s house in Daxing District, with a cat lying on top of it and a dog crouching beneath it. Wang’s dream of taking the machine into the big leagues using environmental protection as a selling point dampened early this century.

The leading academic thinking, upheld by the State Environmental Protection Administration and other Chinese government departments, was that batteries, if manufactured with low mercury or even “mercury-free,” would not become an environmental bane. The agencies encouraged reduction of the toxic components so the batteries would soon cease to be hazardous waste. Thus, it became unadvisable to recycle batteries only for environmental purposes.

Wang found a new tagline for his dream business: “reuse resources.” His machine distills the mercury from the batteries, then separates out the zinc, iron, and manganese for reuse. “Even if the batteries don’t pollute the environment, used batteries should still be recycled for the purpose of reusing resources,” said Wang.

He predicts it would cost roughly 2.5 million RMB (roughly US$350,000) to manufacture his machine on a larger scale. With a production chain developed, the machine would break even and eventually become profitable by processing 1,000 tons of batteries a year. Already today, Beijing’s consumption of batteries far exceeds that quantity. “Then I can set up a few branches nationwide,” Wang envisions.

But Wang Zixin doesn’t have any money. He and his three children all depend on his wife’s meager income. Even so, he has never yielded to weakness or disillusion, and he continues to meet with anyone who shows interest in his invention. Those who really want to help him don’t have the money, he says, while others want to take advantage of his vision, using his technology to apply for national grants or to cheat stock market investors.

Wang dreams of assuming complete control of his business in the hope of incorporating his own concepts and vision to the process—from technology decisions and equipment manufacture, to setting up a recycling network, to managing franchise stores. Only in this way, he believes, can the battery recycling industry be developed soundly.

Yongfeng Feng is an acclaimed journalist at China Guangming Daily who reports and writes on science and technology issues. Outside contributions to China Watch reflect the views of the authors and are not necessarily the views of the Worldwatch Institute.

China Watch is a joint initiative of the Worldwatch Institute and Beijing-based Global Environmental Institute (GEI) and is supported by the blue moon fund.