Beneath the gleaming surface of its showcase cities, China is a land of pure obfuscation. In a place rife with dichotomies – rich versus poor, rural versus urban, male versus female – many fall prey to black-and-white categorizations of what they see. Switch one’s perspective and an entirely new reality comes to light.
Take, for example, the veritable mêlée many wake up to each morning. There’s the clucking of chickens at market, a cacophony of merchants outbidding each other and the ubiquitous sound of the bell. Old China hands know all too well the bell and what it means. For the uninitiated, the bell is China’s universal cry of the recycling man. Whether on foot, by bicycle or truck, these mostly rural emigrants trawl the laneways looking for scraps. Any scraps. They go beyond simple paper and cardboard and will deconstruct any item down to its component parts. Everything has a price, which means everything is recyclable.
Reactions to the bell of the recycler usually fall within one of three camps: “shut up I’m trying to sleep!”; “oh my lord, how many Styrofoam boxes can she pile on that cart?”; or, “look at the awful income gap these Chinese suffer through.” Few think about the benefit these recyclers provide. In the west, and I speak from experience coming from southern California, “recycle, reduce, reuse” is second nature. We know to separate aluminum cans into the blue bin and lawn clippings into the green one. We know all too well the consequences of not doing so, whether steep fines, environmental degradation or just pure social embarrassment. We’ve been conditioned to act.
In China, no such conditioning yet exists. People do not separate paper and plastic. Paint cans, soda cans and aerosol cans are all just cans; except to the recycling man. An old light is not only glass. After hammering away at it for an hour, it yields glass, metal, springs, wires and miniscule bits and bobs. A plastic DVD cover is cracked open and its insides exposed, poked, prodded and eventually ripped out and separated. They are experts at their craft, using the precision of a surgeon and the speed of a factory worker.
Granted, these recyclers are doing their work less altruistically and more to get by, but let’s put motivations aside. They are a critical piece in the ever-changing puzzle that is China. Next time you are woken up by the sound of a bell clamoring by your window, see a cart piled 12-feet high with cardboard or have to tail a cavalcade of slow-moving push bikes, take it on the chin. Without that bell, that cart or that bike China would be less of a dichotomy and more of a landfill.
“Musings” is a series of pieces discussing various elements of Chinese society. The goal of Musings is to provide readers with a more thorough understanding of what life is like in China. It offers a different perspective on everyday occurrences, particularly those that impact the environment.