'The government takes away your recycling and gives you nothing for it?' Mrs Ruan is appalled by the state of recycling in my home country, the UK. Her outrage is particularly unexpected as just moments earlier the local neighbourhood watch volunteer had to help me wake her up in the cab of her recycling truck.
Mr and Mrs Ruan had asked me to come in the early afternoon as it would be quieter, aka nap time. Despite this, customers start arriving with large bags full of all sorts of sellable goodies.
An elderly couple arrives with a mix of their own items and things they’ve picked up. First things first, you have to sort the goods. We sort the pile into cans, bottles and cardboard, then count. And it’s us doing the counting, so don’t even bother doing it in advance as you won’t be trusted.
Cans arrive pre-crushed and go into a plastic bath. Small bottles don’t need crushing, though anything larger does, okay?
The elderly couple who had brought in what seemed a lot of rubbish leave with just a couple of RMB in coins. I ask whether any clients get preferential rates. 'The prices are pretty much the same at all recycling stations, like stalls at a vegetable market. Everyone from old to young gets the same price here. But we don’t let children stamp on their own bottles.'
Next come 46 large bottles. We unscrew the caps then proceed to jump on the sea of bottles. It’s a joyful few minutes and Mr Ruan laughs at my long feet. We transfer the flattened bottles to the sacks and Mr Ruan makes a tally of how many go in. 'If you rely on what they tell you at the buying centre then you’re in for trouble.'
By this point a small crowd has formed to watch a foreigner jump on bottles. So when I ask whether the place where the Ruans sell on their materials is Government run and what prices they get, effectively I’m opening up the topic to a neighbourhood discussion. We occasionally allow the Ruans to inject a fact into the proceedings. No, there are no Government buying centres left, it’s all private, but it’s still the Environmental Protection Bureau that ruins everything for everyone, according to the neighbours. 'Don’t get me started on the Huanbao,' moans an older gentleman sitting on his bike, who has quite possibly had run ins with them over his dye job.
A man arrives with metal frames and a broken stepladder across the back of his tricycle. Someone else with flattened boxes. Finally, something to put on the scales. My mental arithmatic struggles with weights measured by the liang and prices given in yuan, jiao and fen (1RMB, 0.10RMB and 0.01RMB). I put the items on the scale, look at the weight given in liang and smile at the customer while pretending I’m working out the price until Mr Ruan does so. The man gets 13RMB for his 18-jin metal haul – the biggest payout I see.
As we stack the truck with cardboard I ask if the prices change a lot. 'Our prices are linked to changes in the global markets,' explains Mr Ruan. To the extent that his buying centre calls him every morning with that day’s prices. There aren’t as many people coming so it doesn’t look like the truck will be full enough to drive out to the buying centre. Falling commodity prices (no, really) mean fewer people in general are bothering to collect and bring things in. 'Everything is too cheap these days,' reflects Mr Ruan, who’s been in the business ten years. 'We’ll keep doing this until we can’t make a living and then we’ll have to find something else.'
What’s it worth?
Prices as of mid-October
Plastic bottles 0.04RMB per 500ml bottle, up to 0.20RMB for larger.
Aluminum cans 0.04RMB for a few up to 0.07RMB for bulk.
Cardboard 0.70RMB per kilo.
Old clothes 0.20RMB per kilo.
Glass ‘Don’t even bother’.