In July 2017, China, the world’s largest waste importer, notified the World Trade Organization of its ban on 24 types of solid waste imports, including plastic materials and wastepaper. The waste import ban affected several rich countries—including the United States, Britain, and Germany—who needed to find new destinations for their rubbish.
In the past two years, many of these waste materials began heading to Southeast Asian countries and South Korea, which maintained relatively loose environmental regulations. South Korean paper corporations mostly hailed this rapid shift in China’s environmental policy. Meanwhile, thousands of elderly Korean wastepickers bore the heaviest toll from this change.
Seoul is home to 66,000 elderly wastepickers, mostly in their late 60s or older, who scrape a living out of selling collected old newspapers and cardboard boxes to junk dealers. After China’s waste import ban, Korean wastepaper has been competing with relatively cheaper, better-quality foreign imports and has faced a drastic plunge in its domestic market price for wastepaper. The senior wastepickers, whose survival hinges on their daily gathering of wastepaper, suffer from even more meager earnings.
The effect of the Chinese waste import ban highlights the dark side of the South Korean elderly care system, which is generating greater concerns in its rapidly aging society. The import ban poses an economic challenge to a considerable number of senior citizens unable to support themselves without resorting to low-paid manual labor.
“The local public works program at the municipal office pays me 500,000 to 600,000 won [$430 to $515] each month, but my medical fee is far beyond what I can cover,” said Kim, 69. Even after having two operations on her waist, she cleans a municipal government office every day and heads out to collect wastepaper to earn an extra 4,000 won.
Physical pains and illness are commonly observed among elderly wastepickers who spend all day long toiling away. The poor wage rate of their regular occupations, if any, is one reason that pushes them out of their homes to complement their low earnings. The South Korean government provides job opportunities for 600,000 seniors aged over 60, 75 percent of whom work — usually cleaning streets — for two to three hours. However, such state-provided income is paltry — just 270,000 won, which is only one-sixth of the average living expenses of seniors over their 60s.
Ever since the waste import ban led to a substantial cut in wastepickers’ earnings, the general living conditions of elderly wastepickers have become even more precarious. Wastepicker Hwang pointed out that wastepaper became so cheap that “it is never enough to cover living expenses,” although she is able to “buy bean sprouts or light drinks” with the income it provides. Like every other wastepicker, she cannot solely depend on collecting cardboard boxes.
Nonetheless, some elderly wastepickers choose to carry on their hours of drudgery. “I feel incompetent at home. While picking up wastepaper, I get to take a short walk around the town, just like a light exercise. If I don’t collect wastepaper, what else would I do at home? I wouldn’t have any other way to find out what’s going on in this world,” said Kim. With her only daughter living far away in a foreign country, she exemplifies the psychological anxiety problems commonly experienced among old people left alone and socially isolated.
In the 1960s, South Korean teenage ragpickers, many of them orphans, gathered together for mutual protection against police inspection. Today, Korean wastepickers, some of whom long for community care and companionship, gather wastepaper in their twilight years.
According to a recent report published by the Korea Labor Force Development Institute for the Aged, the number of elderly wastepickers who exhibited potential signs of depression (37.34 percent) was far higher than that of general average seniors (20.98 percent). The number of senior wastepickers who have considered committing suicide (14.59 percent) was similarly higher than the average of their peers (6.61 percent).
Despite both the physical and psychological suffering of wastepickers, their cleaning efforts have seldom been recognized by the government. In 2013, the Seoul metropolitan government set forth a new recycling plan, Zero Waste Seoul 2030, which aimed at raising its municipal retrieval rate of recyclables. To this end, the government hired public sanitation workers to collect recyclables in newly installed “recycling stations” and attempted to replace elderly wastepickers.
Contrary to the city government’s hopeful prospects, two years later, the recycling station failed to induce the active participation of citizens and became no longer operative. An interview with a previous worker at the recycling station revealed that the major culprit was the low wages of the public service workers, who were paid per unit collected, not by an hourly rate. As recycling wastepaper involved an extra step of sorting out recyclables from mixed garbage and rubbish, the public sanitation workers demanded more pay for their labor.
The eventual collapse of the recycling plan reinforces the essential contribution of senior wastepickers, who separate recyclables even without high economic incentives. The greater time availability of elderly wastepickers, who are willing to work day and night, complements the deficiency of the municipal waste management system. A statistical analysis on wastepickers found out that 91.9 percent of elderly wastepickers, compared to 52.5 percent of overall working seniors, live in the east side of Seoul, where systematic waste processing facilities were lacking. The patchy municipal waste management system in some areas of Seoul has in turn created a room for wastepickers to intervene.
From a longer-term perspective, addressing the grievances of senior wastepickers is crucial. An expert in a Korean recycling thinktank emphasized a vital linkage between the recycling industry and individual wastepickers. Only with wastepickers’ sustained contribution to retrieve recyclables can the municipal government maintain its current waste management system in a cost-effective way.
China’s waste import ban is an alarming call for the South Korean government to revisit its previous way of treating senior citizens. The government’s efforts to improve its senior care system should start by accrediting elderly wastepickers as self-driven entrepreneurs who deserve adequate remuneration corresponding to their hours of labor, rather than doling out state subsidies from a patronizing posture.
“What we really want to see is the government coming to the rescue for the most needy,” wastepicker Lee cried out. Twenty years ago, she began to gather wastepaper after her son lost his job in the wake of 1997 financial crisis. “Many seniors in my age are left alone without any care. It’s time for the government to step in and recognize urgency of this problem.”
Hayoung Seo is a Yenching Scholar majoring in International Relations at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. As an undergraduate at Lawrence University, her research interests centered around the global waste chain. Her honors thesis on South Korean wastepickers won a Political Science Journal Award in 2019 and culminated in a Summa Cum Laude degree in political science.