Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Special Place in my Heart for Trash

Our lovely courtyard house, found for us by the local trash collector

Posting our latest Five Books interview on the world trash trade got me thinking that it's actually quite hard to live in China and not get interested in trash. My husband and I are particularly attached to the trash collector who until recently lived in our hutong (or alley) because he was the one who found us our courtyard house. When we arrived in Beijing, none of the real estate agents had anything suitable on offer, but a friend of a friend who lived in this street asked her trash collector whether he knew of any houses that were vacant and he had no problems identifying which ones were available for rent. Afterwards I think he was always somewhat mystified why we were so pleased to see him. He lived in what can only be described as a semi-enclosed corrugated iron bed (you couldn't call it a room, as there was no place to stand) under a staircase at the bottom of the alley. How he stayed warm, how he made money (was he given a salary by the local government? Did he just survive from selling the stuff he found? If so, how did he stop others encroaching on his turf?) I never did find out. Now he is gone and I can no longer ask him. On the positive side, my daughters did give him lots of hugs while he lived here, which he probably appreciated more than a question and answer session.

Trash continues to be a form of interaction with the local community. You can put it out on the street at any time of day or night, and someone will be keen to look through it. Actually sometimes it's quite embarrassing as you don't really want your neighbours to see all the items in your rubbish. But sometimes it feels quite constructive. Here one such conversation:
Me (on seeing woman outside my house looking longingly at my trash): "Hi! Are you looking for something in particular?"
Woman: "Yes, I need a pair of shoes for my son."
Me: "Oh, there aren't any in these bags, but I do have a pair that my son has just grown out of. Shall I go and get them?"
Woman: "What size?"
Me: "He's 7, but he has big feet."
Woman: "No, that won't do. I need shoes for a teenager."

Neighbour's trash offering Feb. 10 2014
In China, the idea of recycling really comes alive. It's not like the US, where you separate your items into regular trash and recycling only to see the garbage truck put all of them into the same container and drive off to I-don't-know-where. Here people are going through and finding stuff they can use or sell right on your doorstep.

What I find culturally interesting is that you end up becoming a lot more frugal with waste yourself. In the US, my family and I generate one large bag (Tall Kitchen size) of trash per day. In China, we only generate one small plastic bag. We wouldn't dream of buying special trash bags to put the trash in: we just use plastic bags left over from shopping. Not that we generate many of those, as supermarkets hand them out very sparingly and charge you for them, so I always carry around my own reusable ones.
The views on what constitutes a household necessity are just completely different. For example, in the US, paper towels are seen as a God-given right, on a par with toilet paper when it comes to household essentials. In China, I wouldn't dare buy a paper towel. I can already hear what Xiao Huang -- who helps with cooking and cleaning around our house -- would say if I showed up at home with 12 rolls of Bounty. "What are you doing wasting money on paper that you're just going to throw away? Why don't you use a piece of cloth you can use over and over again?" If she even knew what a paper towel was, which I honestly can't say for certain she would.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Trash - fascinating indeed. What's going on in Naples/Italy is crazy, you and Charlie should look for reportages if you haven't seen them yet.
    Your paper story reminds me of the shock I had when we house-sitted a friend's home in Connecticut. The cleaning ladies (3 strong Brazilian women) showed up with 2 packs of 12 kitchen rolls to clean the place...and they used them all!
    I am so happy here in Portugal, to see our Margarida using her good all fabric rags, watering the plants with the water she used to wash the salad, and also composting all our organic waist in the back of the garden!