Ethan Arpi

Dumpster Diving in China

DumpsterWhen I was a college student my roommates would occasionally bring home a dozen or more loaves of free bread, which they found while rummaging through the dumpster located behind the nearest Companion Bakery. Although they were just amateur dumpster divers, my roommates knew exactly where and when to find the cleanest dumpsters, which contained healthy, edible food. In an affluent country like the United States, dumpster diving is, above all, a political statement. It’s about sticking it to the man, saving the environment, and rejecting consumerism. Although it is still only a fringe movement practiced by a handful of diehards, dumpster diving is starting to catch on. In the fashion world, the snootiest of all industries, ?dumpster chic? has entered the lexicon, suggesting that it is cool, perhaps even chic, to wear clothes from the dumpster. Even some of the most highbrowed intellectuals are embracing the movement. In Underworld, for example, Don Delillo suggests that dumpsters can be a plentiful source of food, ranting that, ?This goddamn country has garbage you can eat, garbage that’s better to eat than the food on the table.? And he’s right, I can?t think of anything more delightful than French toast made with dumpstered bread!

But in much of the developing world, dumpster diving has nothing to do with high trends and political ideology. That is, it’s not about rejecting consumerism, but about being rejected by consumerism. When markets don?t meet people’s needs, they are left with few options but to subsist on the byproducts of consumption.

Take China for example. When it comes to consumerism, China is the United States on steroids. So if you think that the Mall of America is the worst thing since corn syrup, then wait to you hear about the great malls being erected in this self-proclaimed communist country. According to the New York Times, by 2010, ?China is expected to be home to at least 7 of the world’s 10 largest malls.? And these aren?t just any old super-sized malls. The South China Mall, for example, boasts a $400 million fantasy land with ?150 acres of palm-tree-lined shopping plazas, theme parks, hotels, water fountains, pyramids, bridges and giant windmills. Trying to exceed even some of the over-the-top casino extravaganzas in Las Vegas, it has a 1.3-mile artificial river circling the complex, which includes districts modeled on the world’s seven “famous water cities,” and an 85-foot replica of the Arc de Triomphe.?

With all the hype coming out of China these days, especially after hearing about projects like these, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical. It is certainly true that consumerism?both in the United States and China?is the engine behind China’s burgeoning middle class, which now boasts almost 70 million people. But what has consumerism done to the other 1 billion people in this great country? Certainly they aren?t all dumpster divers, right? And yet somehow there are enough of them to generate headlines here in the United States. In an article published earlier this year in the New York Times, Howard W. French reports how ?throngs? of poor Chinese peasants subsist by scavenging at some of the world’s most dangerous garbage dumps. ?Even in the heartland of a booming China,? he writes, ?Peasants can make far more money collecting plastic trash bags, tin cans and the rubber soles of shoes than they can as farmers or ordinary day laborers.?

?Were it not for dangers of the job,? he continues, ?like being crushed by a bulldozer, inhaling noxious gases while wading knee-deep in fetid refuse or being beaten by warring gangs of scrap pickers for the mere prize of an unbroken bottle, it might even be considered a good job.?

And yet, Mr. Song, a Chinese dumpster diver, thinks that it is. “We worked really hard as laborers before, doing 12- to-15-hour days for a mere few hundred Yuan. You have to work even if you are sick or tired. Here we are working for ourselves, and there is a lot more freedom–four to five hours a day, plus we can earn a lot more.” And who can blame him? Mr. Song is using the income generated from dumpster diving to pay for his daughter’s education at one of the country’s best high schools.

Although the abundance of waste in garbage dumps is supporting Chinese dumpster divers like Mr. Song, almost everyone would agree that there must be a better alternative. And yet the challenges facing China, a nation of almost 1.5 billion people, are so enormous that it’s impossible to think of either a short or long-term solution. It is estimated that by 2010, nearly half of China’s population will live in cities. This rural to urban movement involving hundreds of millions of peasants will be the largest migration in human history. China’s garbage dumps might be big, but they aren?t that big. How to bring these peasants into the formal economy will be the most crucial test for the ascendant China. If this country succeeds?and that’s a big ?if??then China will become a hyper power greater than anything yet seen. But if China fails, it will spell a recipe for social, political, and economic disaster.

For the time being, however, dumpster divers are here to stay. “We don’t steal. We don’t rob. We only make a living,? Zhu Feixiang, another Chinese dumpster diver, told the New York Times. ?Besides, recycling garbage benefits the nation.” So maybe I was wrong; it seems that Chinese dumpster divers do have more in common with their American counterparts after all.

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World Resources Institute