Not as Dumb as It Seems

Sunday, 25 May 2008 00:00 Wu Hsiao-ting
Scrap glass is heavy to handle and doesn’s sell for very much, so it would seem stupid to waste much time and effort on it. However, in one rural county in China, residents use bicycles and wheelbarrows to collect used bottles and jars. They reuse what others only see as "garbage,” and they decrease the damage to the environment.

For 20 years, Zhang Liangshui (張良水) used to bicycle from neighborhood to neighborhood, collecting and buying cardboard, plastics, and other recyclables. He would pile everything on his bike, collecting every type of recyclable material imaginable--except glass. He deemed glass too dangerous, cumbersome, and difficult to transport. Furthermore, it wasn’t worth much money.

Zhang would even go so far as to break the fluorescent tubes he collected, retrieve the more valuable metal within, and throw away the glass. It never occurred to him that poisonous substances in the tubes, such as mercury, could escape and cause serious environmental damage.

One day, he passed a house cluttered with piles and piles of recyclable trash. He stopped in and asked the owner, Huang Yuyin (黃玉英), if he could buy it from her. Unexpectedly, Huang launched into a talk about the importance of environmental protection and a charity foundation called Tzu Chi.

Huang also made a living collecting recyclables. Like Zhang, she canvassed the neighborhoods on her bicycle looking for stuff to collect. At home, she meticulously sorted out the things she had gathered. For example, plastic bags of different colors sold at different prices, so she would carefully separate them into different bundles. She worked long hours, often late into the night. But unlike Zhang, she kept only a small portion of the recyclable income for herself--the rest of the money she donated to Tzu Chi to help students from indigent families.

After hearing her story, Zhang was so touched by her selfless spirit that tears welled up in his eyes. What astonished him even more was that Huang, along with all the other Tzu Chi environmental volunteers, collected and recycled glass--something he deemed practically worthless.

 Worth the effort
Bag after bag of waste glass, gathered from streets, restaurants, and clinics, converged at a recycling station set up at a factory owned by Tzu Chi volunteer Liao Chao-zhong (廖朝仲). Volunteers weighed the bags and found that they came to a total weight of 4.7 tons, valued at 520 renminbi (US$75).

This was the result of more than 20 days of effort by a group of Tzu Chi volunteers living in Nanjing County, Fujian Province, southeastern China. The money was not much--only enough to help two or three impoverished students pay for a semester’s tuition. In fact, an outsider might not even deem the amount of money earned worth the enormous effort. But for volunteer Liao Chao-zhong, the glass drive was eminently worthwhile.

“Can you imagine what it would look like if all this broken glass was scattered along riverbanks, under trees, or in the soil?” he asked.

Knowing that what they are doing helps the environment, Liao and a group of like-minded Tzu Chi volunteers are committed to recycling waste glass. The group of volunteers in Nanjing consists of Liao, his wife, and some local residents. Most days, they comb the streets for recyclables. Once a month they gather at the recycling station at Liao’s textile factory to sort out the items they’re collected. Between December 2006 and April this year, they recycled nearly 55 tons of glass, equivalent to over 98,000 glass bottles. That’s about 5,800 bottles a month!

Low monetary profits, but high environmental benefits
Many locals in Nanjing earn a living by collecting metal cans and plastic bottles, but no one collects waste glass. It just doesn’t pay to do so. Glass is difficult to transport, troublesome to separate by color (clear, green, and brown), and costly to recycle. Local recycling businesses refuse to take it because no one in the area wants to use it. Most factories would rather use fresh ingredients to make new glass than take the time and expense to recycle waste glass.

According to statistics, only 13 percent of glass is recycled in China. There’s just not enough monetary incentive to bother with it. Empty wine bottles from restaurants, IV drip bottles from clinics, and seedling culture bottles from flower cultivators are carelessly tossed in the trash or discarded on the sides of roads, along rivers, or in fields. Not only is the litter an eyesore, but the broken glass is a safety hazard as well.

Glass never decomposes. A million years later it will still be there. For this reason alone, recycling glass has huge environmental benefits. Plus, glass recycling saves energy, reduces pollution, and decreases the use of natural resources. It takes more than 700 kilograms of quartz, a hundred kilograms of pure alkali, other raw chemical materials, heavy oil, and electricity to produce a ton of glass. Producing new glass undoubtedly has a large role in the consumption of the earth’s resources.

In order to reduce the burden on the planet, the Tzu Chi volunteers in Nanjing County decided to take up the job of collecting waste glass. They looked everywhere for a recycling company that would purchase it. Finally, they found one in the city of Zhangzhou, about a 30-minute drive away. Furthermore, the company was willing to come to Nanjing periodically to collect the glass gathered by Tzu Chi volunteers. The company crushes the bottles and ships the broken glass to factories in Guangdong Province, southern China, or Shandong Province, eastern China, to be reprocessed and reused.

Many supporters
Since the recycling program was initiated, more than 40 restaurants and clinics have agreed to donate their used glass bottles to Tzu Chi. Many local business owners are enthusiastic supporters of the program.

Liu Ren-ye (劉人圠), a Taiwanese orchid grower, is one of them. In the mountainous regions of Nanjing, the marked differences in temperatures between day and night are ideal for growing orchids. The climate in the county has spawned a large number of orchid cultivators, who in turn have created a large demand for seedling culture bottles. Liu observed that many of these bottles are broken during cultivation and transportation. Disposing of all the broken glass could be a big headache for the orchid growers, but Tzu Chi takes care of it all by collecting the broken glass for them.

Li Xiuxia (李秀霞), a practicing doctor who owns a clinic, is another supporter. She said that her husband was once cut by glass while swimming in a river. She did not want the same thing to happen to others, so in response to Tzu Chi’s glass recycling project, she began to save her bottles for the volunteers.

Wu Xiaohong (吳曉紅) is a restaurant owner. Her restaurant produces many empty glass beverage bottles. She used to put them out by the side of the road with the rest of the garbage to be collected, but they attracted flies and smelled bad. Sometimes vagrants would rummage through the trash, creating a mess and even causing bottles to roll into the road, thus posing a danger to passing cars. The police once fined her for this situation. She is more than glad that Tzu Chi volunteers come to her restaurant and take away the empty bottles. It solves a big headache for her.

Recycling to help indigent students
At the home of Tzu Chi volunteer Cheng Suli (程素麗), dozens of heavy, cumbersome bags filled with glass bottles lay in a large pile. It had taken Cheng and two other volunteers, Wang Baiying (王白英) and Zhuang Guoshan (莊國山), many trips to collect that much glass.

The three of them usually work together; Cheng rides a bicycle, Zhuang a tricycle, and Wang a motor scooter. They visit one restaurant after another and one clinic after another, picking up glass at each stop. Working together, they can collect more than ten large bags each trip. They tie the bags securely to their vehicles and bring them back to Cheng’s home.

A neighbor said she often sees Cheng going out to collect glass. Sometimes Cheng does not return home from such recycling runs until after dark. Then she works in front of her home, cleaning out the bottles, separating aluminum and plastic items from the bottles, and putting them in different groups. “All of us living around here know that she is collecting glass to help the needy,” said the neighbor.

Cheng said that in the beginning her neighbors were curious as to why she had become a “garbage collector.” “How much money do you earn a month by collecting garbage?” they would ask. Cheng knew that environmental protection was a novel idea to the locals, so she just told her neighbors she was using the proceeds from the sale of the recyclables to help the poor. By and by, some of her neighbors even began to gather recyclable items for her.

Wei Xiangui (魏獻貴), Cheng’s husband, said that his friends used to complain to him, “How could you let your wife become a garbage collector?” But instead of feeling embarrassed, he proudly replied, “My wife is doing recycling to help students from poor families.”

It’s not shameful to do the right thing
Xiaofen (小芬), a 12th grader, is one of the students receiving financial aid from Tzu Chi. Her father, in his forties, is almost completely blind. They barely support themselves by selling vegetables they grow in the vacant lot in front of their house. Since there is no extra money for education, Tzu Chi has been providing financial help to put Xiaofen through school.

Her father is very grateful for Tzu Chi’s help. He told Tzu Chi volunteers that he would ask his daughter to donate money to the foundation after she graduated and began to make money on her own. The volunteers said to him, “You don’t need to wait until Xiaofen graduates. You can start helping others right now by recycling with us.”

Thus, Xiaofen’s father decided to help recycle glass too. Guided by others in the village, he began collecting waste glass to donate to Tzu Chi. He does not mind at all what his neighbors think when he picks up glass from the streets. Like the other Tzu Chi environmental volunteers in Nanjing, he believes that doing the right thing is never shameful.

More and more local people, like Xiaofen’s father, have joined Tzu Chi’s recycling program. Huang Yulai (黃玉來), a retired public official, not only joined Tzu Chi herself--but so did the rest of her family, including her aged parents, sons, daughters-in-law, sisters, nephews, and grandsons! They all became members as they began to identify with the ideals of Tzu Chi. Even Huang’s 88-year-old mother picks up glass bottles from the sides of roads and rivers. Huang’s brother, a vegetable peddler, uses used plastic bags collected by Huang to help cut down on the consumption of new bags.

"We’re actually benefiting our posterity by protecting the earth,” said Huang, a staunch supporter of environmental protection.

Zhang Meilian (張美蓮) works the graveyard shift at a local textile factory. After work, she takes a short rest and then hops on her bicycle. She rides around collecting glass from restaurants and clinics.

In the beginning, she kept her efforts a secret, worried that her husband would object to her recycling work. But when he learned of her efforts, he gave her his full support. Her children likewise support her, and they often bring empty beverage cans and bottles home from school for her. She said that her relationship with her children had even improved since she began participating in recycling, perhaps because she was smiling more.

Song Ping (宋萍) and Zhuang Xuehui (莊雪揮) are professional caterers who have worked for the past ten years at the canteen at Liao Chao-zhong’s factory. About four years ago, Liao invited them to join Tzu Chi. They have been volunteering ever since. Although they often work from early morning to late at night, they hit the streets during their afternoon breaks to collect waste glass.

Once on a cold winter night, Song Ping saw a figure salvaging stuff from a roadside garbage can. A closer look revealed the person to be Huang Yuying, also a Tzu Chi environmental volunteer. Moved by the bent silhouette of Huang working so hard to retrieve recyclable materials, Song vowed to herself that she would work harder to do recycling.

Since they started participating in Tzu Chi’s environmental program, Song and Zhuang have grown more eco-conscious in their daily lives. Song used to refuse to eat leftovers, and she would ask for more plastic bags than necessary to carry her purchases when she went shopping. Zhuang had the same habits. Volunteering for Tzu Chi has changed all that--neither can imagine doing things like that again. They decided to replace the plastic and Styrofoam tableware used at the factory canteen with stainless steel eating utensils. This helped reduce the amount of garbage produced in the canteen. They never let anything go to waste, even stooping down to pick up the smallest pieces of paper.

Creating a cleaner community
Once a month, volunteers gather at the Tzu Chi recycling station to sort and process the trash they have collected. It is hard and arduous work. Volunteers empty out bags packed with recyclables: small boxes contained within big boxes, metal bottle caps with plastic linings, pieces of iron embedded in plastic. It is difficult and time consuming to thoroughly sort and classify all of the materials.

Zhang Liangshui is always present for the monthly recycling day. Sorting through the trash, he said, “This kind of plastic sells for four yuan per kilo [26 US cents per pound]; that kind goes for one yuan per kilo [7 US cents per pound].” Clearly, experience in recycling has taught him a lot.

A volunteer named Chen has been in the recycling business for 20 years. “When I started, there weren’t so many soft drink bottles. Look at all the over-packaged goods, the thick stacks of newspapers......”

Although civilization has advanced and new technology has made life more convenient, the general quality of life has not improved very much over that of our ancestors. Zhang Liangshui has experienced this firsthand. One time he was taking a swim in the river, enjoying the cool water. Suddenly, he noticed he was surrounded by garbage: tires, glass, and even feces flowing down the river. He immediately climbed out of the river, but not before contracting some kind of irritating skin disease.

According to a study released in January 2007 by the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association, Chinese citizens scored relatively low in environmental consciousness and behavior. The study proves there is ample room for greater public involvement in environmental efforts.

In Nanjing County, Tzu Chi volunteers refrain from talking too much about environmental issues, such as global warming or carbon emissions. Local citizens are generally lacking in environmental awareness, so such talk just doesn’t garner much attention. Instead, Tzu Chi volunteers encourage people to engage in recycling to “keep their families from stepping on broken glass and getting hurt,” or “to clean up the neighborhood.” Another approach is to emphasize that the proceeds from recycling can be used to help the needy. It is a much more effective way of promoting environmental protection.

One year ago, there were only 20 recycling volunteers in Nanjing County. Today, that number has doubled. By participating in recycling drives, the volunteers have come to cherish things more, moderate their lifestyles, and change their consumption habits.

"There is no real garbage, only misplaced resources.” This is a motto for everyone engaging in recycling. Through their actions, the volunteers are telling everyone: Waste glass can be garbage, but it can also be a precious resource; it all depends on how you look at it.

Day in and day out, these dedicated volunteers are working hard to build up their community, making it more earth-friendly and a better place to live.

By Li Wei-huang
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photographs by Yan Lin-zhao

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