Chen Liwen checks a public garbage bin on Monday outside her residential community in Changping district, Beijing, before she buries her own kitchen waste in the ground. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Every three or four days, Chen Liwen leaves home with a little hand trowel and a bag of carefully sorted kitchen waste.
She goes to a tree-lined area outside her residential community, digs a shallow pit, and carefully buries the vegetable peelings and leftover organic waste - no meat, no plastic - only biodegradable waste. She deftly covers her family's waste with leaves and branches, starting a mini compost heap and replenishing the earth.
Chen, 35, is not only a conscientious recycler. She has worked for more than seven years with Zero Waste Beijing, a Beijing-based NGO that specializes in promoting waste recycling around the country. A recent new project saw her establish a waste sorting system for rural villages with the goal of creating "zero waste" communities in China's expansive rural areas.
"Now we see hope of implementing effective garbage classification and recycling systems in rural areas," Chen told the Global Times, adding that she also hopes the country's lawmakers will pass legislation to support comprehensive recycling and waste reduction measures.
Chen says the major problem with China's waste management is the current collection system which is overly centralized and takes individual responsibility out the picture.
"It is very difficult to promote waste sorting in China, because our waste collection mechanism mixes all the garbage together when it's collected," said Chen.
A real actor in the sector
Chen was an English major at Tianjin Normal University and had expected to become an English teacher after finishing her post-graduate studies in 2008. After working as a volunteer on some waste-related environmental projects, she decided to shift her career to help establish new ways to manage society's mountains of garbage.
"My sub-consciousness told me that waste is related to everyone and I have to do something about it," said Chen, who was born and grew up in Cangzhou, North China's Hebei Province.
Chen joined Zero Waste Beijing in 2010 and has become a real actor in the sector.
"I love this team because it gives me a lot of opportunities to work on the front-line, which suits my personality," Chen told the Global Times.
Chen and her team work hard to boost awareness of proper recycling and garbage collection systems, but they also feel somewhat helpless trying to turn the tide on a number of unresolved issues.
Chen recalls the period between 2009 and 2015 as the height of public participation in environmental activities, including trying to stop controversial waste incineration depots being built to handle Beijing's garbage.
Feeling frustrated and wanting to advance her own knowledge, Chen decided to take a break and study overseas.
She spent a year at Canada's Memorial University and transferred to the University of Southern California where she studied the history of China's waste recycling for another year.
Promoting recycling in rural China
Chen says she has just about given up trying to make effective changes in heavily populated cities.
Many urban residential neighborhoods provide large communal garbage bins for different types of waste, only see all the waste collected in the back of the same garbage truck.
"I can't bear seeing recyclable waste that has already been sorted get mixed together again with kitchen garbage when it's collected," said Chen.
It's in China's rural areas where Chen says she is helping to bring about real change.
She says it's not hard to convince people of the benefits of waste sorting. They know it will improve their surrounding environment, and that collecting biodegradable kitchen waste for composting will improve their local farmland.
In the past, such efforts went mostly in vain because they were designed to only tell villagers what to do, not show them exactly how and when it should be done, says Chen.
When she arrived at Nanyu village in Laishui county, Hebei Province in August, Chen spent a lot of time communicating with local people. She soon convinced the village's Party secretary in charge of the small village of about 200 families to remove all the large and often overflowing public refuse containers.
Chen then distributed two different colored waste bins to each family, asking them to separate biodegradable kitchen waste from other types of waste that can be recycled. Then every day at 5 pm, Chen sent out a modified garbage sorting cart, which cost under 10,000 yuan ($1,512) and was paid for by Zero Waste Beijing, to collect the waste door to door.
Chen taught the villagers not only the benefits of separating their waste and garbage but how it should be done.
"It didn't take more than a week for local people to learn and get used to the new method of garbage collection," said Chen.
"Rural China is an acquaintance society, where it is easier to change people's collective consciousness and behavior. Social mobilization is very important in promoting better garbage management," Chen told the Global Times. "I felt touched when I learned that local people were actively following the new garbage sorting operation after I left."
Chen has applied the same techniques she used in Nanyu village to other villages in Central China's Henan Province, South China's Guangdong Province and East China's Zhejiang Province.
Almost every village saw dramatic improvements.
Before adopting her method of garbage collection, many villages were mired in a vicious circle. Their garbage dumps were often stinking and overflowing and people became indifferent.
Concerned about urban scavengers
Last week, Chen posted an article on her WeChat official account, lamenting Beijing's disappearing scavengers who are an important and effective part of the waste management ecosystem.
These men and women, often seen on their flat-bed motorized trikes, sort through garbage bins in residential areas before large garbage trucks arrive. They collect all types of recyclable materials - plastic, glass and cardboard - and return them to depots for a bit of cash.
As Beijing has recently intensified a city-wide campaign to demolish illegally constructed residential buildings following a deadly fire, many of the scavengers were forced to leave the city.
"It's a real pity for Beijing to lose these trash pickers. Their job is a necessary complement to the city's centralized waste disposal system. They are the only people in the city who do trash recycling and they are actually valuable professionals," said Chen, adding she's witnessed them deftly classify plastics into more than 10 categories.
While there is a long way to go before China establishes a proper waste sorting and recycling system, Chen thinks there's reason to be optimistic.
In 2016, President Xi Jinping said China will soon implement a waste sorting system throughout the country. Chen believes this is a signal that the central government is paying attention to the issue.
"Currently, the biggest problem is that we don't have a basic law for waste sorting. So, I hope we can provide more examples to showcase and prove a waste sorting system can and needs to be implemented in China. Hopefully we can do something to impress and convince the lawmakers," said Chen.