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An Ethnography of Waste Pickers in Guiyang (2012)

YANG Lichao, Beijing Normal University (Small Grant 2012)
Rapid industrialization and urbanization have led to the rapid growth of the informal waste recycling sector in peri-urban China since the mid-1980s. Waste pickers are constantly exposed to a range of different types of pollution, have unhealthy living conditions and are prone to injuries and diseases, all of which decrease their overall life expectancy. In addition, the ill-health of waste pickers and the conditions around recycling areas are increasingly becoming a public health problem. This research aims to understand waste pickers’ experience and the role of government policy in managing the health problems associated with the informal waste recycling sector in peri-urban China.
Urbanization, population growth and rising living standards have made Chinese municipalities the world’s largest generators of solid waste. In 2004, the urban areas of China generated about 190 million tons of trash and by 2030 this could increase to 480 million tons (World Bank, 2005). According to a survey conducted in 2004, about 1.3 million people work in the formal urban waste collection system and another 2.5 million in the informal sector, paid mainly by the sale of collected materials (InterChina, 2004). Aside from the rapid increase in waste, the lack of city-wide recycling programs has contributed to the emergence of an informal sector of waste pickers, who are usually very low-income rural migrants who collect recyclable materials to sell to recycling facilities.
Waste pickers frequently sort through waste in residential areas, hazardous landfills and street containers, and also sort and burn waste at landfills in order to recover metals and other valuable substances. Open burning of wastes emits particulates, carbon monoxide and POPs like toxic dioxins. In addition to chemical burns and respiratory problems from particulate matter, other health problems include puncture wounds, back injuries and traffic accidents. Waste pickers generally live close to landfills in unhealthy conditions and generally have no health insurance.
In order to better understand the environmental health problems faced by waste pickers and the ways in which policy might more effectively address them, this project will conduct ethnographic research into one community of waste pickers in Guiyang. The project involves a collaboration between Beijing University School of Social Development and Public Policy, Guizhou Medical University and the Guiyang Centre for Disease Control and Protection. It includes experts on Anthropology and Public Health.

For more information about the project, contact YANG Lichao at