Converting rural China to the zero waste revolution, one village at a time

Mandy Zuo

A small village on a hillside in central China is leading the way in addressing one of the great issues of the modern era – how to reduce human impact on the environment to zero.

Only some 20 residents, all of them elderly, remain in the village of Liantang in Guiyang county, Hunan province. The rest have moved away over the years, seeking the opportunities and modern conveniences of urban life.

But one man has returned to the place where he was born and raised, determined to remake it as a zero waste community. Tan Yiyong, 39, founded a non-profit organisation in 2013 called Jiao Dao Xiao Dao, promoting waste sorting and an eco enzyme which can be made out of household scraps and used as a fertiliser and cleaning agent.

In 2016, the organisation turned its attention to China’s rural villages and, after working with dozens of communities, Tan and his team are now teaching zero waste concepts to his home village of Liantang, where they spent the first two months picking up 20 tonnes of waste from around the houses and fields.

“I guess it was probably all the rubbish accumulated over the past centuries,” Tan said.

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For decades, to save money and time, the residents of Liantang disposed of their daily waste in bushes or ditches, in front of or behind their homes, wherever they found it convenient and appropriate to do so. A large rubbish bin installed by the government at the entrance to the village was largely ignored, as it required the residents to call a collector and pay for the transport of the waste to the nearest landfill themselves.

China’s central government has been rolling out a waste-sorting system across 46 major cities to ease pressure on landfills, but standardised systems and regulations have not yet reached rural areas. According to the agriculture ministry, about 20 per cent of rubbish across all rural areas of China – the world’s second largest waste producer – is still not centrally disposed or treated.

The government of Heye township, which administers Liantang, has been encouraging rural dwellers to clean their homes and public areas once a month under a national campaign launched at the beginning of the year to clean the countryside. But plastic bags, cigarette ends and other non-recyclable rubbish can still be seen on roadsides.

Teaching villagers in Liantang, central China how to become a zero waste community. Photo: Thomas Yau

“It is us doing everything at the moment, but our goal is to influence the residents, and ultimately make them do it,” said Tan, whose organisation has seven workers and four volunteers in Liantang.

After the two-month clean-up, the team started teaching villagers how to classify waste into five different types, make the eco enzyme – an environmentally friendly acetic acid – from uncooked fruit and vegetable scraps, and compost cooked kitchen waste.

The team also leased some fields and a pond from the villagers to demonstrate organic farming, growing vegetables, rice and lotuses.

It’s good they have come. In the past we just threw rubbish away all around the place.

Li Guofeng, Liantang villager

The amount of waste sent from the village to landfill has been greatly reduced as a result, said Ding Yong, who is in charge of the project in Liantang, which has only called for the rubbish collection service once since September. “We made use of all kitchen waste, and sell what is recyclable, so there’s not much left,” he said.

Li Guofeng, a villager in her early 60s, is an enthusiastic convert to the project’s message. “It’s good they have come. In the past we just threw rubbish away all around the place. Now they teach us how to sort it out. Our village is much cleaner,” she said.

Li is the only villager in Liantang who still grows her own rice. Like the other households, she was offered a free large bucket in which to ferment fresh kitchen waste with sugar and water to make the eco enzyme. She has just asked Ding for a third bucket to make the enzyme, as she and her husband have decided to replace chemical fertilisers with the home-made recipe.

It took six months to persuade the couple to make this small change, Ding said. He is now trying to teach them how to make further use of the fluid in cleaning dishes and so on.

They are not able to understand environmental hormones etc, but we will persuade them with results.

Ding Yong, Liantang team leader, Jiao Dao Xiao Dao

“Mix one portion of your dishwashing soap, one portion of enzyme and five portions of water. You have a better cleaning effect and, more importantly, the waste from washing your dishes can be used to irrigate plants. Otherwise the plants would die,” he explained to Li. “You can do the same with your body wash,” he said.

“They are not able to understand environmental hormones etc, but we will persuade them with results,” Ding said.

Ding is also glad that he is no longer considered a pyramid seller. “In the beginning they complained to the township government and police about us – a group of people coming from the cities speaking standard Mandarin, telling them about environmental protection and health – it was just strange to them,” he said.

“We started with picking up litter and cooking free lunches for the villagers. And they thought we were some kind of pyramid scheme or tourist developer – you know, people get suspicious when being offered something for nothing,” Tan said.

“But by far, they at least have accepted us and some of them are trying to follow our ways. Some agreed that they will fertilise their fields with eco enzyme as we have done,” he said.

Only 20 elderly residents remain in Liantang, but there are hopes the green initiative will lure some of the younger generation to return. Photo: Thomas Yau

Xiao Ying, the Heye township’s party secretary, is supportive of the Liantang green initiative and hopes it can be a model for other local villages.

The pressure of waste disposal has been mounting in recent years, with 15 to 20 tonnes collected across the township each day.

“There are three landfills for the town and they are close to saturation point. So we are building an incineration plant now, which will open next year,” Xiao said. “Hopefully Liantang’s experience could be copied in other villages.”

Drawing on his extensive experience in other rural communities, Tan says he has found his home village of Liantang more difficult than others to convert to the zero-waste concept.

“It has probably been the hardest one, because there are so few people here – it is a ‘hollow village’, as we put it,” he said.

Everyone has left. It’s good he has come back. It would be nice if more people came.

Lu Guanrong, Liantang villager

As part of China’s massive urbanisation over recent decades, numerous villages have witnessed a similar outflow of farmers to the job opportunities and better prospects offered by the industrial towns and cities. They have left behind them a great deal of idle land and empty houses.

Liantang has 90 mu (6 hectares, 14.8 acres) of arable land but most of it has been left idle, as the remaining residents have mostly grown too old for large-scale farming.

Tan hopes that, by turning the village into a model of waste pollution minimisation, some of the younger generation can be lured back to Liantang. Lu Guanrong, 90, hopes so too.

She is the oldest villager in Liantang and lives alone in a brick house with broken windows. She has several children and a number of grandchildren, but they only come back once or twice a year. “Everyone has left. It’s good he has come back,” she said. “It would be nice if more people came.”

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