Zhang Jinling is picking cardboard boxes from a trash can on the side of the road in a downtown area of Shanghai. She empties the boxes, folds them and puts them on a trailer hitched to a bicycle. She also buys cardboard from residents in the houses on the same street, purchasing it for 2.5 mao (less than 3p) for a pile. When her trailer is full, she takes the load to a recycling market on the outskirts of the city where she sells each pile for a 1p profit. Markets like these sort waste into different materials and sell it to bigger markets where it ends up at big industrial recycling plants for individual materials.
Jinling is one of hundreds of thousands of waste pickers working in cities across China sorting through other people’s rubbish, removing and sorting anything that can be recycled and selling it for a meagre profit. Most people working in this sector are migrant workers from the countryside who come to big cities to try to make a living.
Further down the street, Guan (who didn’t wish to give his full name) is buying cardboard from a small fruit shop. He has been doing this job for almost eight years and makes a daily profit of £10.
Guan and Jinling are collecting recyclables in one of Shanghai’s most desirable and expensive neighbourhoods but their living standards are very different from the people who live there.