Text and photos by Huang Xiao-zhe
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Recycling volunteers Yang Hui-mei (first from left) and Shen Mu-lan (third from left), along with two nearby residents, dedicated their time to volunteering at the Chang’an Recycling Station on a Saturday afternoon.
Saturdays are busy days at the Chang’an Recycling Station in Taiping District, Taichung, central Taiwan. It’s the day when nearly all the volunteers come together to help, typically completing the majority of recycling sorting before noon. Afterwards, most of the volunteers call it a day and head home.
I arrived at the station on one such Saturday afternoon to find its metal entrance gate partially open. Upon entering, I found Yang Hui-mei (楊惠美), a regular at the station, skillfully dismantling cardboard boxes. On the other side, two additional volunteers were sorting through piles of recyclables. After inquiring, I learned that these two are nearby residents who generously volunteer their time whenever they can.
Soon after, a woman arrived, pushing a baby carriage loaded with recyclables. She warmly greeted everyone. Her name is Shen Mu-lan (沈木蘭), and she is another familiar face at the station. A heartwarming touch to this scene was the presence of a little dog named Beauty nestled in the carriage. Beauty often accompanies her owner on recycling collection trips, making her a miniature guardian of the Earth.
I took a photograph of the group that afternoon with the intention of using it as the starting point for this story. These volunteers dedicate their Saturdays not to rest or leisure but to the pursuit of environmental conservation, selflessly contributing to the well-being of our planet. Their eco-friendly endeavors, coupled with the delightful presence of the little dog—who appeared to relish the experience just as much as the humans around her—painted a truly heartwarming picture.
A Welcoming Haven
The Chang’an Recycling Station is located near a residential area, serving as both a convenient resource recycling center for local residents and a welcoming haven for the elderly. One Sunday morning, I saw Zhang Xi-qing (張喜慶), 83, disassembling discarded electronic devices at the facility. He lives right next to the station and took up recycling over a decade ago, when he retired. The station has since become his second home. Whenever he has the time, he walks over to offer his assistance. Whether it involves tending to the surrounding plant hedges, assisting with facility construction, or designing rainwater recycling systems for cleaning recyclables or restroom use, he always does his best to help.
Less than a five-minute walk away from the station lives Liu Bi-luan (劉碧鸞), who has reached the ripe age of one hundred. The centenarian enjoys nothing more than coming to the recycling station every day. To ensure her safety during her short journey, volunteer Lin Li-xu (林麗旭) walks to her home every day to escort her to the station and accompanies her back home afterwards. This considerate gesture warms the elderly woman’s heart and eases her family’s concerns about her safety during the brief trip. Examples like this illustrate how the Chang’an Recycling Station has seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of the community, continuously nurturing goodwill.
Finding Meaning and Companionship
The majority of volunteers at the recycling station on weekday mornings are senior citizens. Among them, a few have developed the habit of sorting recyclables in an area near the roadside. The natural light there is at its best, providing the clearest view of recyclable materials. Some individuals in the group focus on categorizing plastic bags based on their material types, while others remove non-recyclable labels and stickers. There are also those who handle the recycling of transparent plastic bags and foam mesh wrappers commonly used for fruit packaging. Lively conversations fill the air as they go about their tasks.
One day when I visited, the elderly volunteers there began to rise from their seats as noon approached, preparing to tidy up and head home. Suddenly, Huang A-qi (黃阿齊, seen wearing a dark apron in the photo) and Chen Mei-zai (陳梅仔) turned back-to-back and engaged in a playful twisting exercise to limber up their bones and muscles. Xu Jin-lan (許金蘭), standing nearby, couldn’t help but burst into laughter. These older people gather here to volunteer, developing warm friendships and forging emotional bonds. It is no surprise that they return day after day!
Witnessing this cheerful scene evokes something I once heard Dharma Master Cheng Yen say in a talk. She encouraged older people not to feel that they require care just because they are getting on in years, but instead urged them to offer their service proactively, as long as they are still able. For instance, they can care for the Earth by volunteering at a recycling station, sorting recyclable resources to transform them into useful materials. Engaging in such meaningful work brings them joy, allows them to make friends, and keeps them socially active. This in turns helps them feel fulfilled and purposeful in their golden years. What sound advice that is!
Warming Hearts and Stomachs
While volunteers diligently sort recyclables, another group takes care of kitchen duties in a corrugated metal building at the recycling station. These volunteers typically arrive early in the morning to prepare ingredients and cook, ensuring that the volunteers who come to the station have a delicious lunch to enjoy. On this particular day, the menu included freshly cooked Chinese Angelica rice, two stir-fried vegetable dishes, stewed tofu, fried mushroom stems, and pickled radishes, complemented by fresh fruit. The meal offered a delightful balance of colors, flavors, and nutrition.
When the piping hot meals were ready, the culinary volunteers formed an orderly line to carefully pack each dish into lunch boxes. Soon, it was nearly noon, and a bell rang outside, accompanied by a voice exclaiming, “Everyone, it’s time to rest!” It was volunteer Liao Xiu-qin (廖秀琴) who energetically tugged on a rope to sound the bell before shouting loudly, concerned that everyone might be too engrossed in their work to hear.
As the recycling volunteers gradually wrapped up their tasks and prepared to leave, the culinary volunteers warmly reminded everyone not to forget to take their packed lunches home. This considerate gesture added an extra layer of warmth to each person’s meal, allowing them to savor the taste of happiness even before taking their first bite.
Volunteers in the PET bottle sorting area. From left: Xu Li Xiu (徐李秀), Chen Yue-zhen (陳玥禎), Wu Zhen-ye (吳貞葉), and Liu Bi-luan.
Volunteers in the plastic bag sorting area. From left: Liao Xiu-qin, Huang A-qi, Liao Xiu-ying (廖秀英), Lin Shu-jiao (林淑嬌), and Cai Bao-zhao (蔡寶照).
A Goodbye Hug
As I was nearing the completion of my documentary work at the Chang’an Recycling Station, I looked back on the time I had spent with the volunteers there. Among them, Lin Li-xu had made an indelible impression on my mind. Regardless of when or where I was at the station, her presence was unmistakable. She could be found organizing recyclables in one of the sorting areas one moment, and then the next be working at the back of the station, using fruit peels to create eco-enzymes for cleaning purposes. At yet another moment, she had effortlessly transitioned into the kitchen, where she skillfully chopped vegetables and prepared ingredients for lunch. She would also occasionally treat everyone to delectable food she had prepared herself. I came to learn that her enthusiasm extended to special occasions like Chinese New Year and other major festivals, where she would lovingly prepare traditional treats such as radish cakes and rice cakes and share them with everyone. Her selfless dedication resembled that of a mother, attentively caring for each volunteer’s physical and emotional well-being.
During one memorable instance, Lin Li-xu spontaneously gave Huang A-qi a tight hug as the latter was preparing to leave for home. I aimed my camera at them, immortalizing their smiles through my lens. Just then, I thought of Lin Li-xu’s words: “Live each day as if it were the last day of your life, and you won’t have worries.” This spirit seemed to permeate those at the Chang’an Recycling Station, infusing this home-like place with a perpetual sense of positivity and warmth.
Lin Li-xu (right) embraces Huang A-qi before the latter heads home, their smiles forever immortalized within the camera frame.