Recycling Family Album

They are not biologically a family, but may be more so than one related by blood. Coming from many separate households, they develop family-like bonds with one another when they gather at a Tzu Chi recycling station in the name of environmental protection. Huang Xiao-zhe (黃筱哲), a photojournalist for the Chinese Tzu Chi Monthly, features these “families” at different recycling stations in his new column “Recycling Family Album.” Through his photos and words, he invites you to meet these inspiring families taking action to demonstrate their love for the Earth.


Starting Out from My Hometown

The Annan Recycling Station

Text and photos by Huang Xiao-zhe

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

I was honored last year to have a book published. Cherish is a collection of my articles and photos previously printed in the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine under a column named “The Guardians of the Earth,” which featured individual Tzu Chi recycling volunteers. It occurred to me after that book was published that just as every recycling volunteer has their own moving life story, every recycling station, like a big family, has their own stories worth recording too. That’s how this new column, “Recycling Family Album,” came into being.

On the eve of the Chinese New Year in 2021, I visited the Annan Recycling Station in Tainan, southern Taiwan. I’m quite familiar with the Annan station, but more on that later. As soon as I entered, my attention was drawn to two little children, a brother and sister. The boy was older but both were still in kindergarten. It was winter break for them, so they had come to the station with their grandma, Chen Pei-ying (陳佩螢), a volunteer at the station. Sometimes the two youngsters helped sort recyclables; sometimes they were left to play on their own. Seeing the fun time they were having brought to mind the times my younger brother and I would come to the station with our mother to volunteer. My brother and I were just like this young pair of siblings at the time, more than 20 years ago. Though we only half understood the meaning of environmental protection, we had a blast taking things apart at the station. Now I’m in my late 30s and a stranger to the children in front of me, but we are connected through this station. Though separated by decades in time, we will share the same childhood memory of this special place.

Her Spirit Lives On

I hadn’t visited the recycling station in several years, and I found that the few Madagascar almond trees around the plastic bag sorting area had grown quite tall, tall enough to provide pleasant shade for the volunteers working in that area.

The Annan station takes in a considerable amount of plastic bags, so volunteers there have long been proficient in sorting them. They can identify the types of plastic bags by touch and therefore demonstrate amazing alacrity as they work. They can organize mountains of bags in a single morning.

The sight of everyone working hard and with enthusiasm reminded me of volunteer Chen Xiao Xiu-jiao (陳蕭繡蕉), who is no longer with us. On September 30, 2013, I captured a shot of her working in the plastic bag sorting area. There weren’t very many volunteers adept at sorting bags back then, so her workload was heavy. Undaunted, she willingly threw herself into her work. She was already past 80 at the time, but she’d pack a lunch every morning and ride a tricycle from her home to the recycling station to work. Her dedication to her work never wavered.

The plastic bag sorting area in which she used to work is still there. Though she has passed on, many more volunteers have emerged in her place. They are carrying on her spirit of service. Her spirit lives on.

Volunteer Chen Xiao Xiu-jiao sorting plastic bags in 2013

Meeting a Real-Life Bodhisattva

It was much quieter in the area for processing PET bottles. Every volunteer there sat in their own corner, absorbed in removing caps and rings from bottles, much like students quietly doing their assignments in class. Suddenly someone called out to me, “Xiao-zhe, long time no see! Are you back here to photograph us?” I looked in the direction of the voice and saw that it was Ms. Huang Hui-que (黃惠雀) talking to me. Sporting a head of white hair, she was sitting in the farthest corner of the area. I marveled at her keen eyes, especially given her advanced age. She hadn’t seen me in years and yet was able to recognize me in an instant.

In a short while everyone was packing up to go home. Huang warmly said to me as she gestured towards some water jugs she had tied to the rear end of her motor scooter: “I’m taking these jugs home to water my vegetables. I’ve grown a lot of big, beautiful jicamas. When I’ve harvested them, I’ll send them to the Jing Si Abode [the Buddhist convent founded by Dharma Master Cheng Yen] for everyone to eat.” Hearing her offer her vegetables so graciously warmed my heart. Besides being a devoted recycling volunteer, she grows vegetables not for herself but to generously share with others. It is no wonder Master Cheng Yen holds volunteers like her dear in her heart.

A Team That Works Great Together

Since the Chinese New Year was near and many households were doing their traditional year-end cleaning, a lot of recyclables were arriving at the station. Recyclable garbage that hasn’t yet been separated by generic type is placed in the general sorting area in the back of the station. If volunteers stopped working for even a day, the impressive mountain of garbage there would quickly spill outwards and take up the space in which the volunteers worked. Therefore, volunteers needed to work even harder during this time to process the incoming recyclables.

This is the place where collected materials are first processed before being diverted to other areas. There is so much to do here that two shifts of volunteers typically work just in the morning alone—the earliest volunteers arrive shortly past five; the second shift arrives at around eight. The number of people showing up every day differs, depending on whether they need to work, baby-sit, farm in the fields, or take part in other volunteer activities on that particular day.

Looking at the one-story-high mountain of mixed recyclables, I began to worry that the volunteers wouldn’t be able to finish processing it all before another truckload of garbage arrived. But much to my surprise, the volunteers said to me with confidence, “Don’t underestimate us, we are quick. We can process a third of that mountain of recycling in a single morning.”

Just then, I saw a volunteer dump recyclables out of a large bag onto a worktable. The others standing around quickly reached out and began to pick out piece after piece of garbage and sort each one into its appropriate container. This group of volunteers had worked together for some time and had built up great chemistry. Agile and quick, they went about their work with admirable speed. Others might not have been able to achieve the same level of efficiency as they did.


For days I’d made frequent visits to the Annan station. Every time I visited, I saw how volunteers would be done sorting massive heaps of recyclables one day only to have to start all over again the next day—the garbage never stopped flooding in. Still, they kept at it indefatigably. On and on they worked, motivated by a shared sense of mission. It wasn’t until evening when everyone would straighten their backs, remove their face masks, and call it a day. That was the only time I was able to see their faces.

On February 22, 2021, I took group pictures of volunteers in each area. When I was sorting through the photos later, I saw once again the confident look of every volunteer. I couldn’t help but want to praise them: “You all look great and beautiful!” Though I wasn’t able to photograph all the volunteers, and some photos I took didn’t make it into the magazine due to space constraints, I was happy about the shots I had taken. I had captured many of the dedicated volunteers at the station. Thanks to them, my “Recycling Family Album” had its first collection of photos.

Volunteers in the plastic bag sorting area. Back row from left: Liu Mei-zhen (劉美珍), Zhong Jin-zhi (鍾金枝), Shi Yue-qing (史月卿), Chen Xiu-qing (陳秀卿), Shi Yu-yin (施玉赺), Chen Ying-zi (陳英紫), Xie Mei-yun (謝美雲), and Chen Wang-shi (陳罔市). Front row from left: Lin A-bi (林阿筆), Xie Miao-rong (謝妙榮), and Wu Xiu-li (吳秀麗)
Volunteers in the PET bottle sorting area. Back row from left: Zhuo Mei-zhu (卓美珠), Ou Fang-zhi (歐芳枝), Cai Ming-da (蔡明達), Yan Xiu-yu (顏秀玉), and Wang Hui-mei (王惠美). Front row from left: Shi Chen Li-zhen (史陳麗珍), Wu Jin-chou (吳錦綢), and Guo Bi-lian (郭碧蓮)
Volunteers in the general sorting area. From left: Weng Jin-luan (翁金鑾), Zhou Shu-ru (周淑茹), Ma Qiu-ye (馬秋葉), Huang Xiu-jian (黃秀兼), Xie Li-xiu (謝麗秀), and Zhou Qiu Xue (周邱雪)


May 2021