China’s Waste Collectors: A Profile of Mr. Lu

“Most people can make money from this. It’s pretty normal for waste collectors and people on tricycles to have over a couple million dollars in their bank accounts.”  Mr. Lu, Manager at a large waste collection center

Informal Collectors Lu Profile - Collective Responsibility
Photo Credit: COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

Where is he from?

Wenzhou, Zhejiang province

What does he do?

Mr. Lu is one of Shanghai’s most unique entrepreneurs. Like many large business owners, he has tracked commodity prices, managed employees, and maintained a steady flow of clients for the past 10 years. What makes him different from most is his trade: collecting and sorting Shanghai’s waste.

His industry, however, is heavily stigmatized. When he tells people about his job, their first reaction is negative. Waste is seen as a dirty, messy nuisance – not a resource.

According to Mr. Lu, however, waste is valuable, and informal collection is one of Shanghai’s most important industries.

Mr. Lu currently manages waste paper and cardboard at his large collection center. On a daily basis, he manages 90 to 100 employees and pays nearly 500 collectors who pass in and out of his site. His center is quite large – a sprawling outdoor lot with sections for paper, cardboard, plastics, aluminum, copper, scrap metal, wood, and glass.

Without sites like his, many valuable recyclables would end up in a landfill – thrown together with household and construction waste.

“The sorting in China, that’s all our responsibility,” Mr. Lu said. “The city needs us, so our industry will always exist.”

His site is entirely private. This means that, apart from a business license, he has no connection to the municipal government.

Waste Collectors Mr Lu - Collective Responsibility
Photo Credit: COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

What is his background?

Before moving to Shanghai, Mr. Lu worked in market research at a small tobacco company. He tried unsuccessfully to apply for the Communist party, but after reaching a dead end, decided it was time for a career change.

After moving to Shanghai in 2007, he entered the waste industry in Putuo as a total outsider. “When I arrived, I didn’t understand anything,” he said. “I was cheated and tricked by people, but these were useful experiences for me.”

Only after working for a year — and finally understanding industry tricks — did Mr. Lu build a reputation for himself among other collectors, local residents, and managers at local collection sites. Eventually, his social network was the key. Within two years, one center asked him to serve as a manager.

Since entering the industry, Mr. Lu has served as a manager at two large centers. The first shut down because it was too small, and the landlords wanted nothing to do with waste. Mr. Lu is used to such obstacles – resident complaints, negative landlords, and limited space – and thinks he might have to move again in future.

This is pretty standard in the informal sector, he says. People are constantly on the move. Whether you’re changing sites or supply routes, the industry is all about mobility.

Informal Profile Mr Lu - Collective Responsibility
Photo Credit: COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

What is the informal waste sector? Who are informal collectors? 

Last year, Shanghai’s government officially collected 7.89 million tons of waste. The formal sector collects any form of waste, from plastics to metal scraps, but they have only three treatment methods: landfill, compost, and incineration.

So who recycles and reuses waste? This job falls to a network of independent, opportunistic collectors. These workers are everywhere, traveling across the city on tricycles. At any time of day, you can see one with cardboard, styrofoam, or a mountain of plastic bottles strapped to his back seat.

“Household waste, according to you guys, is waste or trash,” Mr. Lu said. “But according to us, it’s a treasure.” So long as they can resell or reuse the material, it is valuable.


To read more of Collective’s latest articles on Waste in China, check out our Waste Landing Page — which covers everything from e-waste, to plastics, to more articles on informal recycling like this one.

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This article was written by Alison Schonberg, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.

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