I am contributing this as a follow up to the Bkk Post artcles on SALENG. I prepared this summary for an Asian Institute of Technology newsletter.
Scavenging and junk buying have frequently appeared in development literature as symbols of urban environmental deterioration, human degradation and lost hopes. Beyond these images, however, lies a reality in which these disparaged occupations provide refuge for the unemployed, a secure economic niche for particular ethnic, caste, or territorial communities, material inputs for local industries, commodities for export, and a means of diverting large amounts of recoverable materials from landfills and composting plants.
While the social and economic arrangements that provide the structure of these occupations differ in their particulars from city to city, some general characteristics are evident across their occurrence. Junk buying and scavenging typically draw on a rural labor force, appear as small-scale owner-operated enterprises, are often characterized by hierarchical and dependent economic relationships, carry a high degree of social opprobrium and, through common material sources, articulate with public refuse collection and disposal systems.
These general characteristics have led some to categorize scavenging and junk buying as informal sector trades. This approach, while valuable in turning the attention of development specialists toward small enterprises as a point of policy intervention, through its ideological appeals to both market- oriented and social equity minded reformers, has tended to obscure the multi-faceted realities of these enterprises. The informal sector has thus become, at once, an innovative, adaptive and efficient economic sector, and a refuge of the poor.
Similar limitations can be found in the alternatives to informality. For example, interpretations of scavenging as a form of disguised wage labor, a hypothesis which draws on structuralist-Marxist theories of the articulation of modes of production, views all work as a service to capital, disregarding even limited autonomy. Furthermore, like the informal sector hypothesis, the disguised wage hypothesis loses the household or community perspective through its overemphasis on the relations between individual enterprises. Experience has shown that, in their effort to provide for themselves, households, and often whole communities, spread their labor among diverse forms of production that cross the boundaries of scale, sector, and market.
A recent examination of scavenging and junk buying as it appeared in Hanoi, Vietnam between mid-1992 and mid-1993 (DiGregorio, 1994), suggests that these two occupations are best understood in the context of a particular form of Vietnamese industrial organization which Pierre Gourou (1936) termed peasant industries. Peasant industries, as described by Gourou, were village based, drew on household labor, integrated into agricultural cycles, provided small but important cash incomes, and exhibited a high degree of solidarity and exclusion. These characteristics are evident within the recycling business to this day.
While still providing a refuge from destitution for many, the principal characteristic of the waste trades in Hanoi is the way in which both the labor force and specific occupations are partitioned. Nearly half of the labor force is from Xuan Thuy district in Nam Ha province, approximately 120 kilometers from Hanoi. Residents of Xuan Thuy rely on relatives and village mates living in Hanoi, who originally came to the city in the 1930s, to provide housing and training in the recycling business. For these households, work in the waste trades is integrated into agricultural cycles, providing off-season cash income for taxes and the purchase of farm inputs. This linking of farm work and urban work not only affects the cycles of labor migration, but the gender division of work as well. Men, who generally engage in heavy farm work and work associated with farm technology, as those least bound to the land, spend the most time away from their homes, working as truck loaders, bottle buyers and scrap metal traders. Children have the most flexible schedules, traveling back and forth between Hanoi and Xuan Thuy as their labor and school schedules demand.
Women, who provide the majority of labor cultivating paddy fields and tending to family members, also provide the largest amount of labor in the recycling business. working most frequently as itinerant junk buyers and sidewalk depot operators.
Residents of Trieu Khuc, a village in suburban Hanoi, while sharing a 70- year tradition of work in as recyclers with the residents of Xuan Thuy, are now attempting to specialize in trading. Throughout the city, Trieu Khuc residents operate sidewalk recycling depots. They are able to do this because their proximity to material sources allows them to transport their daily purchases to small warehouses in their village. Their principal suppliers are the women and children from Xuan Thuy.
The third group involved in the recycling business are residents of Tam Hiep village. Tam Hiep residents work primarily at the municipal dump. They began this work due to the proximity of their village to a now unused dump site, a location that allowed them not only to collect materials for sale on the market, but also to collect such things as firewood and green manure for use on the farm.
In 1992, the majority of Hanoi's scavengers and junk buyers, nearly 6,000 people at the height of the agricultural off-season, work within the city. Only a small labor force, about 200 people, worked at the municipal dump. Since that time, while the number of scavengers and junk buyers working within the city has fluctuated around the 6000 person level, the number of scavengers at the municipal dump, now moved to Me Tri, has begun to increase.
This has been due, in part, to changes in the collection system within Hanoi and. in part, with changes in consumption habits. Closure of temporary dumpsite within the city, a major source of materials, joined with a general increase in the types and volumes of potentially recyclable materials entering the waste stream. Changes in the collection system planned by the Urban Environment Company, Hanoi's principal waste handler, will likely result in even higher levels of recoverable materials arriving at dumpsites.
Providing effective waste collection, recycling and refuse disposal service to the people of Hanoi in this time of rapid social, economic and ecological change will require careful consideration of the experiences of neighboring countries, none of which have been able to supply widespread collection and disposal services, effective centralized recycling, or eradication of private recyclers. This suggest that URENCO should begin forging agreements with established recycling communities, and in conjunction with those communities, continue its approach of developing technology locally. One avenue open for experimentation in this process is in the delivery of services to areas outside of URENCO's reach. The collaboration of URENCO and established recyclers from Xuan Thuy, Trieu Khuc and Tam Hiep could serve as a vehicle for the development of appropriate technology, broader coverage of services, and stable sources of income for recyclers. In short, a collaboration would allow for an integrated approach to recycling and refuse disposal that establishes a means of meeting the needs of recyclers, refuse managers, and the public as a whole in an organic, evolutionary manner.
DiGregorio, M. (1994). Urban Harvest: Recyling as a pesant industry in northern Vietnam. Occasional Paper No. 17. Honolulu: East-West Center.
Gourou, P. (1936). Les paysans du Delta Tonkinois: Etude de Géographie humaine. Paris: Editions d'Art et d'Histoire.