The estimated population of China is 1.4 billion people or 25% of the world’s people live here. In Shanghai the reported population is 24 million people. That is the population of Australia plus 1 million. The population statistics of Shanghai do not include foreigners (like me) or those that have immigrated from other cities, towns or villages. The real population of Shanghai is actually closer to 40 million but no one really knows as the figures are not reported. Shanghai now has a larger population than the capital, Beijing. China is well known to have some of the world’s worst air quality. Beijing famously closed down all industry and curbed road usage for the Olympics in an effort to have clean air for the athletes. When the air quality becomes very poor (and it does get to the catastrophic category frequently) the government will close factories for weeks and cars are banned in an attempt for the air to clear enough for people to be allowed outside. Thankfully I have not yet experienced air that bad and Shanghai being on the coast means that the air isn't fantastic but nothing like the capital. With so many people come not only the issue of clean air but garbage but more specifically recycling.
In our comfortable western lifestyles we separate our garbage and recyclables and put them in separate colour coded receptacles. Here in China the system is different. On many street corners there are scrap recyclers. The one that is the closest to where I live is the lady who was the first person in China to say hello to me. She is on the street with her husband from the early, early morning until the mid-afternoon. Rain, hail or shine she is there. She is likely an immigrant worker who has left her province and little village in search of more income. Most of the scrap recyclers in Shanghai are immigrant workers that have left their village or town to earn more money than what they can back home.
One of the Ladies Mafia, the one who always says hello in English to me and then rolls around laughing at her bilingual prowess, about tackles me for my bag full of empty water bottles each day. We now have a spot where I leave them for her, just behind a tree, behind the notice board that displays the newspaper. She collects several bags full of plastics (usually from me) and takes them to the lady on the corner and exchanges them for a few RMB. It is her way of gaining some income, because as you would imagine there is no pension, 401K or superannuation here. But it is not only plastic bottles that are exchanged for a few RMB. One day just sitting on the side of the footpath were half a dozen computers that someone had hoarded for the past 2 decades. The recyclers were pulling them apart and separating all of the valuable wires and plastic pieces, bagging them up and weighing them. This has also happened to refrigerators, air conditioning units, motorbikes, televisions and cardboard boxes. You will often see many people working their way through rubbish bins on the street or in compounds to snaffle anything they can to sell to the recyclers.
As they wait for people to bring them their rubbish and recyclables the couple eats their breakfast and lunch, have little sleeps in their chairs or on top of a mountainous pile of cardboard. In the mid-afternoon once they have packed up, packed in and tied down their goods they take off to on-sell to the big recycling companies and to get their money for the days’ work.
The way that they pack their goods is quite extraordinary and somewhat death defying. There are times that I have seen them cycling down the streets with goods stacked too high and too wide for carriage on a road by a bike. But in true Chinese style they never crash and nothing ever seems to fall off. The traffic gently moves around them knowing that there is no way they can see what is going on.
The recyclers earn good money considering what they do. In fact many of them earn more money than those who work in retail or even teachers. It has been reported that they earn around 500RMB or $125 USD per week. Not bad for uneducated and unemployable immigrants.
I am in awe of these people. They are the uneducated and the very poor who have decided to pave their own way in a tough society and build a better life, not for themselves but for the future generations of their family. They are also working to build their motherland and with this comes some glory for them. One of the pillars of Chinese society is working together to build the motherland to become the greatest country on earth. I feel as though there are lessons to be learnt from the recyclers. They work hard, they are working for not only their own gain but usually working for their children and grandchildren, they do not expect or feel entitled to be given a helping hand or free ride. They just get in and do. I must say that is one refreshing thing about China is that no one feels entitled to be looked after or propped up by anyone other than themselves and their families. Sadly I feel, in the Western world we have become so used to be looked after by our governments we feel we are entitled to everything and more. Rather than just getting in and creating a path for ourselves and our families we sit back and wait for someone else to do it for us.