Big Chinese cities like Beijing still lack an effective official garbage sorting system. Instead, thousands of tons of reusable trash are recycled by an army of scavengers. While making the cities look clean, these migrant workers haven't seen their livelihoods improve over the decades, and economic pressure is forcing many to quit the industry.
A dilapidated tricycle passes through a backstreet Beijing alleyway, piled high with the flotsam and jetsam of modern consumer life, cardboard, Styrofoam and plastic bottles. On the side of the tricycle, big characters are written like a poster, reading fei pin hui shou - waste material recycling.
Follow this small, slow vehicle as it trundles through the city and you'll travel through the capital's prosperity and concrete expanse, entering an unseen world, the kingdom of recycled waste.
Just as depicted by Hao Jingfang in her latest Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel Folding Beijing, it is an underground "third space" of the city, parallel with its modern urban districts.
Proposals for the government to sort the capital's trash were first raised in Beijing as early as the 1950s. But even today, it hasn't been seriously enforced. Last year Beijing generated 7.9 million tons of garbage, most of it ending up in the more than 400 garbage sites scattered around the city.
Every day, thousands of scavengers climb up and down the mountains of garbage to collect recyclables. Beijing's recycling depends on this army of migrants from outside of the city, numbering around 160,000. They handpick and sort the reusable materials before sending them to recycle centers to sell for a few dozen yuan.
The Zhou family is one unit in this army. More than 20 years ago, Zhou Shouyi, now 68, arrived at a garbage site near Beijing's South Fifth Ring Road and began his life as a scavenger.
The family is originally from a village in Fuyang, East China's Anhui Province. As an orphan, Zhou didn't have land to farm so he made a living building houses for others. In the late 1980s, he lost his left leg to a falling tree. Desperation drove the family out of the village and they decided to try their luck in Beijing. The couple has four children - two twin daughters, one girl they adopted after Zhou's younger brother wanted to abandon her, and a son that was born in the city.
They came to Xihongmen to work on a massive landfill in the area. Over the years of urban development, the area has seen a number of new residential compounds and a massive shopping mall with an Ikea store inside. The city has transformed itself and millions of people's lives have changed for the better but not most of the scavengers like Zhou.
Zhou built a makeshift house among the hills of waste out of pieces of metal, wood and bricks he collected, and welcomed his son to the world in it. Almost all the things in their home were thrown away by someone else, including their clothes and some of their food. If he is lucky Zhou occasionally brings home some expired yogurt for his daughters. He also likes collecting plastic flowers to decorate their humble home.
The army of recyclers started to mobilize in Chinese cities in the late 1980s. In Beijing, they are mostly farmers migrating from rural provinces like Sichuan, Henan, Hebei and Anhui. They congregate together with their fellow countrymen and compete for recycling resources with others.
This industry has created moguls out of entrepreneurial early birds like the "king of glass" and "king of plastics." Later they established their own large-scale recycling stations, renting thousands of square meters from village committees around Beijing to sort scrap metal, paper, plastic and glass.
Few such recycling stations are registered with the industry and commerce administration, and water pollution is common. Nevertheless, their existence saves the government millions of yuan every year in waste management.
Wang Weiping, deputy chief engineer of the Beijing Municipal Urban Management Authority, has been involved in management of garbage for 40 years. He said during the city's People's Congress earlier this year that there are 13 factions of recyclers in Beijing, occupying 82 recycling stations on the outskirts of the city, each accommodating about 2,000 households of recyclers.
The "Sichuan faction" is the largest, followed by the "Henan faction." The large number of people means fierce competition, so they have set up their own strict rules and divided the city up into different areas of trash control.
In the earlier period, their work was totally unregulated. According to Wang, in 1997, more than 70 percent of public security breaches were committed by scavengers and recyclers. They not only recycled, but would also steal and rob, taking away manhole covers, railings and even electricity wires.