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Living with Waste

Becoming “Free” As Waste Pickers in Chinese Cities
Ka-Ming Wu and Jieying Zhang
p. 67-74


The essay examines the meanings of waste in the community formation of waste pickers in today’s Chinese megacities. We show that waste pickers in China echo to a certain extent the precarious and stigmatised labour conditions among those in the global south. But we have found that in China, financial reasons alone were not what pushed migrants to enter the trade. In fact, we have found that waste pickers in Beijing enter the waste business also to experiment with urban citizenship, freedom from the factory regime, entrepreneurship, and household making on the fringe of the nation’s capital. Their strategies of working with waste offer a prism for understanding the wider dimension of social and cultural life in the waste community in a major city of China – what we refer to as “living with waste.” “Living with waste” in this paper is intended as a framework to encompass the everyday effort to work with, experience, and live with waste matter on a daily basis. How do waste pickers talk about their job? Is it just about stigmatisation and suffering? Can it be about business and mobility? How do they feel about raising kids in a waste-collecting courtyard? If dirt is “matter of out of place” (Douglas 1966), how do they deal with impurity and contamination on a daily basis? What kind of efforts do they make to normalise or create boundaries in the undesirable working and living environment? Living with waste, then, is deeply bound with efforts not only to make a livelihood, but also to constantly negotiate one’s position with and draw boundaries from waste within the family and the community, in order to make the job bearable, and even meaningful.

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Full text document will be published online on June 2020.

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Bibliographical reference

Ka-Ming Wu and Jieying Zhang, « Living with Waste », China Perspectives, 2019-2 | 2019, 67-74.

Electronic reference

Ka-Ming Wu and Jieying Zhang, « Living with Waste », China Perspectives [Online], 2019-2 | 2019, Online since 10 June 2020, connection on 03 April 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Ka-Ming Wu

Ka-ming Wu is Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong

Jieying Zhang

Jieying Zhang is Assistant Professor in the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social

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