Hainan Recycling Volunteers

A towering statue of the Guan Yin Bodhisattva, commonly known in the West as the Goddess of Mercy, greeted us as we arrived at Nanshan Temple in the very south of Hainan, China. At a height of 108 meters (354 feet), this Guan Yin statue is the tallest statue of her kind in the world. She looks down compassionately on mankind with a dignified and peaceful expression, seemingly reassuring her devout followers of her vow to deliver all people from suffering.

But our trip to Hainan from Taiwan involved more than making a pilgrimage to this statue. We also visited a group of volunteers who serve the world in the same caring spirit of the Goddess of Mercy. They tend to the needs of the Earth by recycling every day to lower carbon discharge and reduce pollution. These volunteers are the focus of this article.

International Tourism Island

Hainan is the southernmost province of China, consisting of various islands in the South China Sea. Hainan Island makes up the majority of the province. The island’s favorable location and the lack of industries result in a blue sky and clean air—blessings, especially in contrast to the smog that dogs so many places on the mainland. Tourists flock to Hainan Island, especially to the city of Sanya on the island’s southern tip, which boasts beautiful beaches and ocean vistas. Resort hotels have sprung up near the sandy beaches to accommodate the influx of visitors.

Seeking to capitalize on Hainan’s geography, location, and benign climate, the Chinese government is working to turn the island into an international tourist destination. As we arrived at the provincial capital, Haikou, we could clearly see the government’s efforts in this respect. Riding on a city bus, we saw the debris of torn-down old buildings everywhere, soon to be replaced by new construction as the city embarks on the path to a supposedly brighter future.

Even before the government stepped up its efforts to modernize and improve Hainan, some private citizens had already acted along those lines. They took up recycling and recruited like-minded people to join their effort. By reducing the amount of garbage and cutting down on pollution, they help preserve the environment and make their cities cleaner, better, and more inviting. Who are these people? They are Tzu Chi recycling volunteers.

Recycling Is Important

We visited some of these volunteers in Haikou. They told us that five years ago they used to pick up garbage along the street and scavenge garbage cans for recyclable items. Electric scooters helped them move from one garbage can to the next. Then four years ago, the government stepped up its modernization efforts. Since then, city cleaners have regularly patrolled the streets to keep them tidy. There has therefore been less garbage on the street, and the city now appears noticeably cleaner.

However, not all places in the city are equally clean and tidy. People refrain from littering on the bigger and busier streets so that they don’t run afoul of the sanitary regulations, but things change significantly in the smaller alleyways. Like many communities, large bins are provided in Haikou for residents to use for recycling. But these are often used by residents indiscriminately for recycling and general garbage. It is an ugly sight.

Adding to the problem is that the public generally lacks the interest, much less the desire or knowledge, to properly sort their garbage. Thus, a lot of recyclable material ends up being treated as general trash.

Tzu Chi recycling volunteers cannot see this and sit idly by. They want to act to make things better for their community and the planet. They pick out the recyclable garbage and prepare it for recycling. They also spread the word and try to convert disinterested people in their communities into recyclers. They realize the importance of recycling and environmental preservation. After all, there is only one Earth. They know that people cannot just think of their own convenience, ignore the negative impact their behavior has on the environment, and leave the consequences up to their posterity.

A New Storage Site

Local volunteers mentioned that they used to run recycling points in old neighborhoods, many of which were demolished to make room for new construction. Consequently, those recycling points had to be shut down.

With the old recycling points gone, volunteers were pinched for storage space. After all, recyclables take up a lot of storage space—and the stuff kept coming in. Fortunately, after some searching, the volunteers found a suitable place near the home of volunteer Lin Yan (林燕) to serve as a storage site.

Guided by some local volunteers, we visited the place. It’s housed in a line of two-story row houses. Residents live on the upper levels, and the first floors contain warehouses. The volunteers have rented one of these warehouses, about 355 square feet, to store the recyclables.

When we visited, a small group of volunteers was sorting garbage in front of the rented space. Children played nearby, while neighbors chatted away on a balcony. A sense of peace and harmony permeated the scene.

There’s no telling whether this line of row houses will also be demolished one day since it is also pretty old. If it is, we’ll be happy that we captured this precious scene of people working for the Earth.

Old Districts

Demolition debris was piled on the roadside of many main thoroughfares on the modern side of Haikou. Just a few steps away, however, as we followed local volunteers to some alleys tucked off the main roads, we came to witness the older side of Haikou.

Strolling through the older neighborhood, we passed an old-style barber shop where a man was getting a haircut. Outside the shop, a waiting customer chatted with a neighbor. We passed old, tall trees whose shade tamed the hot sun; under the shade neighbors engaged in small talk. We passed vendors drawn to where people gathered, peddling their home-made snacks. My heart warmed with nostalgia for Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s.

Strolling through old neighborhoods is a wonderful way to see how the locals live and to experience the culture of an area. We saw people in some homes, sitting four to a table, playing mahjong. Apparently the game is a popular pastime here. We saw a similar scene—people gathered around a table in the home of volunteer Wu Dirong (吳地榮). However, there were no mahjong tiles on the table in front of them. Instead, they were doing something with used candles.

Local Buddhists burn candles when they worship the Buddha. At the bottom of a candle is a thin piece of metal to which the wick is attached. The wick goes up through the center of the candle, which is placed in a small, round plastic cup. The cup supports the candle and catches the melting wax as it runs down the side of the burning candle. People discard these used candles with the garbage, but they are not useless to local Tzu Chi recycling volunteers. Since just throwing them away contributes to pollution and garbage, volunteers collect used candles from temples or homes of the faithful and recycle them.

After use, each candle usually contains wax in the plastic cup and the piece of metal at the bottom of the wax. Volunteers scrape the wax out of the plastic cup, remove the metal piece, and sort the recyclable parts into different piles. The volunteers we saw at Wu’s home worked intently around the table—no less so than those mahjong players, but for an entirely different reason and more gratifying results. Their labor of love has converted big piles of used candles—otherwise destined for dumpsters—into piles of reusable resources and saved the city from some possible pollution.

A Clothes Marketplace

Located in an old section of Haikou, the Deshengsha marketplace is the largest clothing market in Hainan. With at least 600 wholesale and retail stores over a space of 1.6 million square feet, it is a magnet for shoppers from far and wide.

Huang Peiwa (黃妚娃), with a large plastic bag in hand, shows up at the marketplace after 4:30 every afternoon. She picks up plastic bags and other recyclable items from the floor in front of every store, discarded there by the shop owners. She has done this, day after day, for several years.

Huang lives nearby, and she knows well that space is precious in the marketplace. There is little space available for storing recyclables in or around the stores. After she has picked up recyclables at about a hundred stores, she carries the bulging plastic bags up to some free areas one or two floors above the marketplace for storage. Then she goes back down to the marketplace on the first floor to continue her rounds. To save time, she conducts her rounds at a half trot.

She does the same thing, over and over again, day in and day out, year after year. “If I don’t collect the recyclables, they will be disposed of as garbage,” she said. “I just can’t bear to see that happen.”

Gathering After Closing Time

Each Saturday night, after the marketplace is closed for the day, at least 30 Haikou volunteers gather to sort out the recyclables that Huang Peiwa has accumulated. The volunteers used to do the sorting on the fifth floor of a nearby apartment, where the recyclables were stored, but they changed three years ago to do their work in the open square in front of the Deshengsha marketplace.

Those who arrive early first carry the recyclables from the two floors above the marketplace down to the open square. They make one trip after another, and everyone is sweaty when they are finished. If so many people must hustle hard to take the recyclables downstairs, how much more hard work must Huang, alone, have had to do to get the garbage up there to begin with?

Plastic packaging for clothing makes up most of the recyclables, followed by PET bottles. The plastic bags alone weigh at least a hundred kilograms (220 pounds) each time, sometimes as much as 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds). The volume spikes during the end of a season or around Chinese New Year. Sometimes it is midnight when volunteers finish their work for the day.

Admirable do-gooders

in Yan, one of the recycling volunteers in Hainan, was a devout Buddhist even before she joined Tzu Chi. Every day she used to go to a temple in Haikou, where she chanted sutras and worshipped the Buddha to accumulate spiritual merits and blessings. That was the only way she knew how to practice the religion. At the suggestion of Wang Ju (王菊), another volunteer in Hainan, Lin and some fellow Buddhists went to Hualien, Taiwan, in 2012 for a Tzu Chi recycling camp, which thoroughly changed their view on Buddhist cultivation. Lin and the others learned that instead of just chanting sutras and worshipping the Buddha, Buddhists should cultivate themselves by going out into society and giving to others. [You can read more about Wang Ju in the March 2018 issue of the Tzu Chi Bimonthly.]

After the camp, Lin changed how she practiced Buddhism. In addition to devoting herself to recycling work, she now takes part in other Tzu Chi work as well, including visiting and helping needy families.

We visited her home during our trip to Hainan. In Hainan, volunteers often gather where there are recyclables to be sorted out. After the work is completed, the host treats everyone to a home-made meal, after which everyone shares their thoughts and feelings about their volunteer work over tea. At Lin’s home, we met a gathering of such volunteers.

These and many other recycling volunteers in Hainan express their love for the Earth through recycling. They sweat and toil and do a thankless job for free. They keep doing it because they just can’t stand to see garbage make a mess of our Mother Earth. Master Cheng Yen’s teachings to contribute to the good of the world have struck a chord with them. We are most honored to have met many of these admirable volunteers during our trip.

July 2018