Professional Recycling

Posted in Barbershop, Business 'n Economics, Fujian at 1:41 pm by Benjamin Ross

One summer when I was 10 years old, I heard a rumor at summer camp that there was a grocery store in my neighborhood which would pay cash for recycled aluminum cans. For the next 4 weeks, I collected all of the aluminum cans from fellow campers until I had nearly filled an entire garbage bag. At the end of the summer my dad took me to the grocery store. I proudly showed the clerk my bag full of cans which was nearly half my size. He told me I was a responsible little boy for caring so much about the environment, and then handed me $1.29 cash for my summer worth of can collecting.

5 years later, I started my first real job, working as a sacker in a local grocery store. I was paid $4.25 per hour, which was the minimum wage in Kansas at the time. It didn’t take me long to figure out that labor is worth more than materials in the USA.

recyclers bicycle
A professional recycler hauls the days findings through the streets in Fuzhou.

While I was working at the barber shop, three or four times per day, a middle aged man or woman would rummage through the trash can in front of the store. There was a man who would collect bottles and cans, a woman who would collect the plastic disposable cups we used to serve the customers water, and there was even a lady who would come every few days to collect all of the hair. By the end of the day, there was hardly anything left in the trash.

To a casual observer, these people might seem to be beggers. Fuzhou does have its share of panhandlers, but these are not the same people who are digging through the trash Rather, the people who collect our disgarded items are professional recyclers.

In Fuzhou, recyclers can collect .07 RMB for an aluminum can and .1 RMB for plastic bottles. At this rate, it would take about 109 aluminum cans to equal 1 US dollar. This rate is not too far off the one I was given that summer I collected cans at camp. The return is still not high, but when you consider a low-level service industry job requires 4 hours of work to earn 1 US dollar, the prospects of making a living off of recycling suddenly become more attractive. Add that China’s densely populated cities make the process of bottle collecting more efficient than they would be in the US, and it is not surprising why professional recycling is such a common profession in China.

In addition to recycling cans and bottles, professional recyclers also collect and/or buy used electronic devices, books, magazines, cardboard, CDs, and virtually anything else which at some time had value. Some of it is resold, and some is broken down for scrap. The recyclers ride their bikes through city streets with big signs placed in front of the handle bars which read 高价回收 (high price recyclying) and contain a list of items (usually household electrical appliances) which they will buy.

The future will only tell how much longer recycling will remain a profession in mainland China, and presumably as the price of labor rises, the draw to professional recycling will recede. But as barbershop workers are still making only 24 cents an hour, recycling stands to remain a viable profession for the near foreseeable future at least.


  1. China said,

    June 30, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    A far-sight!

  2. lilyth China said,

    June 30, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    In China, people collecting these items are called “收破烂的”, which is sort of uncomplimentary. Nobody thinks they contribute this much to the society. As a westerner, you make us re-consider them in a new visual angle.

  3. Matt in Chongqing China said,

    June 30, 2007 at 4:53 pm


    Followed your blog on my RSS for a few months now. Gotta say, you know what I like best about your writing? Your blog is kind of an everyday-life-in-China blog that so many foreigners write, but you cover things that ARE different here but are just not as easily noticed as spitting, being loud, etc. I mean I have seen this recycling too, every foreigner has, but your words do it justice and explain it very well.

  4. Chris (in Dalian) China said,

    June 30, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    I’ve seen this a lot as a second job, especially around my university. The doorman in my building ends almost every conversation with me with, “Do you have bottles to give me?” It’s pretty much the foundation of our relationship.

  5. Jeremy China said,

    June 30, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    In the little community where I live (pretty much all old people), there are official trash collectors / sorters, and then the guys who sneak in during the middle of the night to get stuff as well. Kind of crazy that there is that much competition for people’s trash – especially as the place I live isn’t exactly your wealthy Shanghai people.

  6. chinaqanda China said,

    June 30, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    Many local authorities in the UK are now forcing households to seperate their trash (bottles/plastics/aluminium cans etc) which is great until you consider the fact that people are basically paying (via council tax) for people to come and collect what is, in fact, a possible source of income. Here in China I keep all my empty cans and bottles and about every month or so sell them to a professional recycler. It’s ironic that developed countries bang on about the environment yet waste so much, while here in China so little actually goes to waste. (ok I know that’s a broad generalization but you get my drift). In this respect China is well ahead of the west. That being said there’s still no excuse for the shocking amount of littering here.

  7. ChinaEconomist United Kingdom said,

    July 1, 2007 at 6:30 am

    Excellent post. As the writier of a China economics blog I hope you don’t mind be reposting and linking (and throwing in a few comments).


    Keep up the good work – a well written and interesting blog.

  8. Nicki China said,

    July 1, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    We’ve actually had these professional recyclers come to blows over who could take our trash. It was a little scary.

  9. Edward China said,

    July 1, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    I do not know what to say.There are seriouse problems about employment in China,so are the college graduates.
    If you have been to a Employment Fair,you would see so many graduates unemployed.
    The population in China has been a huge obstacle in accelerating China’s development.FOR my owe part,I think China would have been a developped country without the big population

  10. Darcy United States said,

    July 2, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    When I was living in Dalian, there was a guy who would ride his bike through our apartment complex every afternoon, calling out something that was (to my poorly trained ears) fairly unintelligible. Took my flatmates and me ages to realize he was letting the neighborhood know he was coming around to get any recyclables that people might have that day, though now I can’t remember which items this particular guy collected.

  11. Jeremy China said,

    July 2, 2007 at 4:55 pm


    Usually the ones that shout out are collecting used electronics. That’s been my experience, at least.

  12. Chip China said,

    July 3, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    The main reason why China can have this, and developed countries like the US and UK can’t, is because of wages and regulations. In terms of economics, I tend to support free wages, less government regulation. Although I might sound like a bad person for saying this, but a large cause of the problem is the existence of minimum wages. It is impossible to pay somebody 5.25 an hour to pick up trash the way it is is picked up in China(it’s not worth it), and so that job simply doesn’t exist. Ofcourse, you can set up efficient systems that put more of the work on the individual consumers (such as the above mentioned bin-seperating thing where home owners have to sort the trash themselves), but as a whole people are less likely to do something that doesn’t make economic sense.

  13. Inst Norway said,

    July 5, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    I’ve seen homeless bottle collectors, racially white, running around Chinese ghettos overseas. It’s pretty easy to create a market for refuse recyclers; all you need is to stamp a large deposit, maybe 25 cents USD, on soda bottles.

  14. James Hall United States said,

    July 6, 2007 at 11:49 pm

    The basic issue is low wages.

    The wage diiference between working stiffs is much bigger than most developed countries.

    Also, the unempoyment is another reason.

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