By Cai Li-li

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

Photos by Huang Xiao-zhe

Source: Tzu Chi Bimonthly Issue 133

An open metal structure stands under a mango tree near the recycling station at the Tzu Chi Gangshan Campus in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. Even from a distance, you can hear knocking and banging emanating from it. Stepping closer reveals a group of recycling volunteers, with an average age of 80, working at a relaxed pace. While age has slowed them down a bit, they skillfully disassemble electrical appliances and extract copper wires from cables, using both their hands and their feet.

Despite their age, elderly volunteers at Tzu Chi’s Gangshan Campus create an inspiring eco-symphony as they work together to process discarded cables and electronics for recycling, minimizing waste and easing the Earth’s burden.

Within the metal structure, seven volunteers work together in a loose production line, creating a slow-motion symphony with their hands and feet as they cut, slice, and hammer on the electrical cables. Focused on their tasks, they share a clear goal: to sell recycled resources at a good price, supporting the production of high-quality programs for Tzu Chi’s Da Ai TV.

These volunteers, old enough to be grandparents, are like superheroes in the world of dismantling electrical appliances and cables for recycling. The youngest is 71, the oldest 85. Though age may not be on their side, their dedication to service remains unwavering as they enthusiastically embrace their role as the Earth’s guardians.

Striving for zero waste Du Yu-zhu (杜玉珠), 81, serves as a dedicated volunteer at the recycling station, managing tasks that include receiving and organizing secondhand clothes and cleaning up after the daily recycling activities. With seemingly effortless grace, she juggles her various responsibilities while sharing stories about the station and fellow volunteers, radiating a gentle warmth that touches the hearts of those around her.

Over four years ago, the Tzu Chi Liuqiao and Houhong Recycling Stations in Kaohsiung’s Gangshan District merged with the station at the Gangshan Campus. After the merger, Du Yu-zhu repurposed a shipping container from the Liuqiao Recycling Station to store second-hand clothes. Later, when nearby factories donated discarded electrical cables, onsite volunteers began stripping them for recycling. They also recycled discarded household appliances.

Electrical devices and cables consist of various materials, such as stainless steel, copper, bronze, and plastic. 

Electrical devices and cables consist of various materials, such as stainless steel, copper, bronze, and plastic. Not all materials are accepted by recycling companies. The station’s volunteers diligently process and separate these materials, making every effort to reduce waste and environmental pollution.

Another remarkable volunteer at the station is Yu Cai Xiu (余蔡秀), 83, who works alongside her husband, Yu Yi-xiong (余益雄), affectionately known as Big Brother among their fellow volunteers. The dedicated couple has been actively involved in recycling work for many years, consistently working from morning till afternoon every day. Interestingly, nearly everyone in Yu Yi-xiong’s family volunteers for Tzu Chi, a fact that brings immense joy to Yu Cai Xiu.

Clad in recycled second-hand clothes and sporting makeshift boots crafted from plastic bags, she layers three pairs of gloves— two plastic and one cotton. Her protective ensemble is designed to guard against oil stains. Lowering herself onto a small stool, she places a basin filled with crushed gravel and sand in front of her. Into this, she adds long, hard cables coated with thick black oil. Methodically, she begins rolling the cables within the gravel and sand to remove the oil. In no time, her cotton gloves are covered with a thick layer of grease.

After Yu Cai Xiu finishes cleaning the cables, 81-year-old Yu Bang-shao (余邦紹) cuts them into small sections and works with her to peel off the insulation. Chen Mei-yu (陳美玉), 71, manages to remove further insulation before passing the cables to 76-year-old Zhu Chen Xiu-luan (朱陳秀 鸞) and 84-year-old Huang Xie Min (黃謝敏) for the final steps. The entire team treats the extracted copper wires from the recycled cables with the utmost care, as if they were treasures.

From left: Luo Jia-zhen, Chen Mei-yu, and Yu Cai Xiu, smiling with joy as they strive to safeguard a beautiful environment for future generations.

Chen Mei-yu is the youngest among the volunteers and prefers to work quietly. She has battled and overcome COVID-19, but is still dealing with a lingering cough. Every cough causes discomfort in her back, but she doesn’t let that stop her from volunteering at the recycling station. She dislikes being idle or at loose ends.

Once Yu Bang-shao completes his work with the cables, he returns to his small stool to continue disassembling electrical appliances. He and his wife, 75-year-old Luo Jia-zhen (羅家蓁), are regulars at the recycling station, showing up every day. Once he starts working, he easily loses track of everything else. After a quick chat with others, he swiftly immerses himself in his work once more.

Luo Jia-zhen joined Tzu Chi’s recycling efforts in 2003. At the station, she often uses a hammer to take apart recycling items on the trunk of a lychee tree over ten years old. The tree trunk is now concave from years of use, speaking volumes about the effort she’s put in on it. Despite dealing with back pain and soreness, applying pain relief ointment as needed, Luo persists in her work. She remains motivated by the continuous influx of items awaiting dismantling, emphasizing, “Our hands never stop; if we don’t work hard, we won’t keep up with our workload. We practically start early and finish late every day.”

In January 2023, Luo began cancer treatment, facing all the challenges that accompanied it. Throughout it all, she maintained an optimistic and resilient outlook, viewing life and death as predetermined and facing it with courage. While undergoing chemotherapy, with reduced energy and weakened resistance, she temporarily paused her dismantling tasks at the recycling station. However, she continued sorting recyclables at home because neighbors continued bringing them over. Her son took over that part of her work during her hospital stay.

Now, she has returned to the recycling station and resumed disassembling appliances there. She says, “I want to be a good disciple of Master Cheng Yen, so I give my best effort. Even when unwell, I do what I can. I’m glad my actions enable me to not only support Da Ai TV but also care for the Earth.”

Staying focused to avoid sorrow

Even at the age of 85, Chen Cai Yue-ying (陳蔡月英) adeptly handles a power drill, effortlessly dismantling devices. Two years ago, she experienced the heartbreaking loss of her youngest son to cancer, a pain that lingers. Her daily volunteering now serves as a haven, providing solace from sorrow and the ache of longing.

Life recently threw her another curveball—her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless, she remains steadfast, once again finding strength in her commitment to recycling amidst life’s uncertainties.

From left: Mao Chen Xiu, Chen Cai Yue-ying, Huang Xie Min, and Du Yu-zhu, smiling with joy as they strive to safeguard a beautiful environment for future generations.

Mao Chen Xiu (毛陳秀), 83, boasts a round figure. She speaks sparingly, wholly focused on the task at hand. Perched in a small plastic chair, she skillfully pounds on a steel frame with a hammer to extract a bundle of copper wires embedded within. When the wires are exposed, her face lights up with satisfaction and joy, much like a child discovering their favorite candy, smiling with pure delight.

In 2003, Mao Chen Xiu began volunteering at Tzu Chi hospitals in Hualien and Dalin, located respectively in eastern and southern Taiwan. After her husband, also a Tzu Chi volunteer, passed away, she donned a volunteer vest he once wore, determined to fulfill both his and her share of volunteer duties. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, coupled with her advancing age, she chose to forgo traveling to Hualien and Dalin for hospital volunteering. Instead, she now takes the 8:05 a.m. bus daily to the Gangshan Campus for volunteering and returns on the 4:00 p.m. bus. During volunteer Luo Jia-zhen’s cancer treatment, she took on the responsibility of opening and closing the area designated for dismantling.

Mao Chen Xiu lives by herself but doesn’t feel lonely. Her two sons have brought her to stay with them on multiple occasions and even expressed their desire for her to move in, but she prefers her home in Gangshan District, which makes volunteering at the Gangshan Campus convenient. “Idleness doesn’t suit me,” she says. “Life is short, especially at our age. We don’t know when we’ll depart this world, so it’s important to contribute while we can. Time and tide wait for no one.”

She shared that when she married into her husband’s family decades ago, she took on many responsibilities in line with the traditions of older Chinese society, given her husband’s status as the eldest son. With two brothers and six sisters in the family, it wasn’t until they also had married and started their own families that she finally had some free time, allowing her to pursue volunteering. As she reflects on these past experiences, her smile maintains a constant presence on her face.

Extending the lifespan of items

Whenever volunteer Sun Xiang-han (孫湘涵) joins recycling activities at the Gangshan Campus, she makes a point of visiting the dismantling area and spending time with the group of elderly volunteers. Their pure intentions and actions for the environment move her deeply. Despite their age, they dedicate their entire days to recycling work, sometimes even foregoing breaks at noon, and only heading home after four in the afternoon.

Volunteers with an average age of 80 carefully disassemble discarded electrical cables and appliances before organizing the components by type or material for recycling. This labor-intensive task demands patience and hard work, showcasing the dedication of these volunteers.

Their meticulous efforts extend beyond reclaiming and recycling copper wires; they also ensure that no second-hand clothes brought to the station go to waste. They carefully select wearable garments, then pack and store them for later use. Even clothes considered unwearable are treasures to Du Yu-zhu. She hands them over to Huang Xie Min, skilled in tailoring, who cuts them into pieces for reuse by factories. The volunteers consistently prioritize extending the lifespan of items, reducing waste, and lightening the burden on the Earth.

Eighty-four-year-old Huang Xie Min excels not only in cutting fabrics but also in stripping cables to retrieve wires. Taking a break from her task of cutting cables with a utility knife, she expresses her appreciation for being able to serve at the recycling station. Sitting idly at home triggers unwanted thoughts and worries, she says. Volunteering at the recycling station keeps her engaged, diverting her from those unwelcome thoughts. She also enjoys chatting with fellow volunteers at the station and values the mutual care they provide for each other.

Du Yu-zhu oversees the operations of the recycling station, staying busy every day and finding joy in her work. She chuckles, mentioning that if she ever has a free moment and her hands aren’t occupied, she might doze off. Besides her recycling station duties, she sorts recyclables at the entrance of her home. She also attends funerals on Tzu Chi’s behalf, chants the Buddha’s name for the deceased, and cares for families of the departed. When asked about her boundless energy, she attributes it to the teachings of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, which gave her the vitality and strength to handle various tasks and responsibilities.

In the small space beneath the mango tree, the senior volunteers move at a measured pace, diligently performing various tasks. They take the labor-intensive nature of their work in stride, remaining steadfast and unwavering. Even with their face masks on, one can perceive happiness and contentment in their eyes.