Recycling Money and the Peddler King.

Shanghaiist makes an interesting proposal for supporting Shanghai’s poorest:

  • Put a small bill in an empty water or pop bottle.
  • Throw it in a public bin.

The people who will find the cash are the folk that make a living trawling through garbage- and we bet that even a 5RMB note will make a big difference to their haul for that day.

[Note to readers outside of China: RMB5 = US$.71]

The post suggests – convincingly, I think – that this is far preferable to supporting beggars who (rumor has it) are often connected to organized crime. In either case, the post reminds me of an urban legend that’s been circulating for years among the thousands of laborers employed in southern China’s thriving paper recycling industry. Now, keeping in mind that waste paper is China’s highest volume import from the United States, it goes something like this: careless, wealthy Americans sometimes throw away bags of paper money along with their old newspapers …. and sometimes those bags of money are found by poor migrant laborers working in South China’s recycling plants.

As an American, I have my doubts about the truth of these rumors, but as a journalist I have a pretty good idea about who spreads them: recycled paper factory owners! In fact, I am personally aware of at least one paper recycling plant manager who – in pursuit of higher productivity from his workers – occasionally slips US dollar bills into the imported bales of paper that his workers must sort.


[I believe Simon Parry had a feature on these rumors in the South China Morning Post a few months ago … but I can’t find it.]

Anyway, as I’ve noted many times on this blog, I’m a great fan and admirer of China’s scrap peddlers. They are my favorite entrepreneurs; they are China’s truest environmentalists; and they deserve much more respect than what they are given (and an occasional fiver slipped into a plastic water bottle is as good a way as any to show it). If you don’t feel this way, let me refer you to the marvelous Wang Jinglian, the operator of the Huadong Nonferrous Metals City, as well as the founder and president of Jinsheng Copper (China’s largest private copper company – worth billions, if sold today.) During a recent interview I asked him about scrap peddlers, and he floored me with this answer (taken from my Scrap Made in China story, mentioned in this post):

“Nobody made them do this. I did it, too,” explains Wang Jinglian, the founder and president of Jinsheng Copper, seated in a conference room that overlooks the building housing his Thyssen-Krupp copper production line. “I had a bicycle and I collected steel.”


So next time you decide to thumb your nose at the neighborhood scrap peddler, just remember: today he might be collecting steel fragments from the trash bin, but tomorrow he could be running one of the China’s largest private corporations and well-positioned to thumb his nose at you!


  1. The collectors are awesome: resourceful and good for resources. There is a film coming out called Shanghai Kids that you’ll love, since it’s partly about a migrant family in the trash recycling trade. Much of the plot centers around their finding someone’s accidentally discarded savings.

    Another nice thing to do I think is to pre-sort your trash before putting it out.

  2. Thumb a nose at the neighborhood’s scrap collectors? It’s honest work; they don’t thieve, they don’t hassle passers-by, they don’t pose to be anything other than people trying to make an honest living.

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