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More than 5 million Chinese migrants work in informal recycling

A Chinese man in Beijing collects recyclable discarded materials, which can be sold at recycling plants. (EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA /LANDOV)

Don’t be fooled by the recycling bins in Chinese cities. Judy Li writes on The Nature of Cities blog that even when separate containers are available for recyclable and non-recyclable material, the waste is combined when hauled off by trash collectors.

Such inefficiency is emblematic of how China handles the 300 million tons of refuse it produces annually — most of it from cities.

Li, a Princeton-in-Asia fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable Cities Program, notes that Beijing and other cities locate landfills and incinerators on their peripheries where migrants live. That leaves the poor vulnerable to toxic fumes and pollution that can seep into air, water and soil.

In an encouraging sign, up to 5.6 million migrants participate in China’s informal recycling trade, which salvages between 17 percent and 38 percent of the nation’s solid municipal waste, the article says.

Li recommends five strategies for improving waste management, including government cooperation with recycling scavengers who earn meager livings. Among her other ideas: Send garbage to compost sites instead of landfills and collect more data on the “true extent” of China’s urban waste problem.

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