It's autumn here at SAU, and the leaves have started their yearly descent. It also means that every class of undergrads has been assigned to one week of mandatory community service—delegated to raking leaves, weeding, and picking up trash around campus. The foreigners have theorized that it's not an effort on the part of the school to cut grounds crew costs (God knows labor is cheap in China), but rather, to give students a healthy work ethic, something that Oberlin, despite its “learning and labor” founding, could do more to foster. But the problem doesn't lie in who picks up the leaves, but in how they dispose of them afterward.
Once swept up and gathered in large blankets, the leaves are deposited in campus dumpsters and mixed in with plastic, paper, and other trash that is later burned in small open fires on campus. The resulting toxic dioxin contributes to local air pollution and the collective discomfort that comes with simply attempting to breath after 5pm. Of course, the most logical solution would be to compost the leaves. Even the school's administration is in favor of the idea, but is so mired in bureaucracy that it has never done anything to change. That was, until James had something to say about it. Last fall, he cleared a small, hidden patch adjacent to Gerald and Dave's old house and, with the help of our Chinese tutor Francis and a couple friends and students, constructed a modest-sized compost bin out of bamboo, string, and mesh netting to use as a test subject.
James turning the compost. The small placard on the front of the bin reads, “I only eat tree leaves!” in Chinese as a way to discourage people from contaminating it with other waste (photo courtesy of James Barnard).
From there, things began progressing fast. While we all began to use the compost pile for disposing food scraps, James gave a couple of lectures on campus about the compost project and quickly became involved with a student organization called “Sons of the Farmers.” They agreed to work with him to collect more leaves through an extensive network of volunteers. True to their word, 30 students came that weekend to help construct a spawn of smaller bins to be placed at strategic locations around campus as a way to divert the conventional leaf-flow. In the spring following the big winter freeze, James convinced the new crop of weed-pickers and lawn-mowers to add their natural waste to the compost pile too, in the hopes that the introduction of nitrogen would help it to decompose into soil faster.
Many hands make light work. One of the "bin-making parties" that took place last semester in an effort to get more students involved in the composting project (photo courtesy of James Barnard).
This semester James hasn't let up in his efforts. He leads weekly teams of students to move leaves from the remote collection bins to the main pile, as well as to a nearby research garden where a professor has given him the go-ahead to bring in an unlimited amount of leaves to be composted. He has been able to use his foreign “celebrity” to its most meaningful end—by recognizing a problem, understanding that he needs help, and having enough star power to create real change. By building the infrastructure and fostering leadership in the student body for the project, his goal is to move the school in a more sustainable direction even after he has gone. He said himself that, “It seems to me that people who are environmentalists should try to solve problems wherever they live. We all share the same planet, so we need to think about solutions in every part of the world.”
It's sometimes hard to feel as if you're the only person doing anything to make a difference, but really, it's just what we as Oberlin students have been told all along: Think one person can change Taigu? So do we.