A woman"s lonely campaign to promote garbage sorting in rural Chbonnaroo registerina

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CHANGSHA - For villagers in a poverty-stricken region in central China"s Hunan Province, there are many more important things their elected lawmaker can do than telling them how to deal with their garbage.

However, for the past five years, Dai Hairong, a deputy to the National People"s Congress, China"s top legislature, dedicated herself to finding a solution to the garbage problem that has plagued her otherwise picturesque hometown.

Her effort started from an inspection tour years ago to Hunan"s Pinghushan national nature reserve.

While marveling at the natural beauty of the reserve, she was surprised by how polluted it was: garbage filled up a scenic natural pit, and piles of fermented trash on the roadside caught fire, giving off strong smelling smoke.

Dai vowed to wage war on garbage, an "environmental tumor" that she believed she had the responsibility to help eradicate.

But many villagers and officials thought Dai had picked the wrong fight. In their mind, economic development should be the top priority for a lawmaker privileged of having a say in national meetings.

"Garbage disposal is certainly no trivial or household matter," Dai said. "It is a difficult problem that the world today needs to tackle head-on."

"The garbage problem is getting worse, but we don"t even know how to deal with it. We can"t just sit back and give in," she said.

After two years" research, she concluded that due to the vastness of China"s rural areas, collecting garbage and then shipping it away for disposal was too costly. Villagers needed to sort it at home and dispose or recycle it as close by as possible.

She then began her lobbying efforts, raising the issue whenever she could at meetings with local officials, and looking for sponsors willing to give garbage sorting a try. She also repeatedly made proposals on the issue at legislative meetings.

In 2015, her determined efforts finally caught the attention of officials with China"s Housing and Urban-Rural Development Ministry. They realized that the 40-year-old woman was adamant about making a difference and would not take no for an answer.

They soon sent an expert team to Dai"s county and helped her devise a plan that was logistically feasible and economically viable.

They agreed that household garbage such as kitchen and restroom waste could be processed at home, and plastic garbage and glassware should be sorted out and then shipped to nearby recycle stations.

They also worked out that one recycle station should be set up for every 500 villagers, which would achieve the highest utilization rate. And it was most economical for a truck to carry 30 tons of recyclables in each trip.

In 2015, with a detailed plan in hand, Dai picked Dasheng Village as a trial site and began to promote a garbage sorting system. All she needed now was the cooperation of villagers.

Hearing about Dai"s plan, a local official said bluntly, "You cannot count on ordinary rural woman to separate wet garbage from dry. We are not that advanced yet."

The official was not entirely wrong. Even in China"s first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, sorting garbage is considered a troublesome practice that is yet fully adopted by city-dwellers. Promoting it among rural Chinese proved to be a much more difficult task, as they are often less inclined to change the way they go about their everyday life.

Dai did not give up easily. At one meeting with the villagers, She tried to highlight the economic incentive of garbage sorting.

"Wasted plastic film can be sold at 700 yuan ($107) per tonne, but will be worth nothing if not sorted," she said.

Dai also warned villagers against the danger of burning unsorted trash, which may produce substances that cause cancer.

"We are willing to do garbage sorting, because we do not want to live in a village full of dust and garbage for the rest of our lives," said Wu Xianhao, a villager in Dasheng. "We just did not know how to do it before."

Now, three years into the trial program, Dai has found that villagers have become more environmentally conscious. They use less plastic cups and tablecloths during banquets and often volunteer to collect garbage in the mountains.

"To fight against garbage, we should never give up or give in," Wu told Dai.