SHANDONG, East China — It’s a peaceful midsummer afternoon in Jinan’s mountainous countryside. The trees are dappled with warm sunshine, cicadas chirp, and a light breeze rustles through the cornfields. On a winding pebble path, I spot an iridescent wing, and wonder what creature it came from.
The answer is in a warehouse at the end of the path, where 300 million cockroaches crawl, feast, and mate. Here, there are no slipper-wielding humans or poison-laden traps in sight. Instead, an unlimited supply of white food oozes from the ceiling, and the temperature is kept at a humid 32 degrees Celsius — perfect for breeding. But what the cockroaches don’t know is that their utopia is part of an eco-friendly scheme to dispose of food waste.
There’s no official data on the overall levels of kitchen waste produced in China, but a Ministry of Ecology and Environment report found that in 2016, there were 188.5 million tons of household waste in 214 Chinese cities. Ding Ning, a senior analyst from online research organization E20 Environment Platform, estimates that in total, China’s domestic and commercial kitchens produced 120 million tons of food waste last year. By comparison, the United States produces an estimated 55 million tons of food waste a year. Only around 1 percent of China’s food waste last year was processed properly, according to Ding: Most ended up buried in landfills or incinerated, leading to land, water, and air pollution. And that’s where the warehouse brimming with cockroaches comes in.
In the early hours of each day, food waste is collected from restaurants around Jinan and delivered to the warehouse. The waste is sorted, blended into mush, and used to feed the cockroaches, which consume around 60 tons of food waste each day. Once the cockroaches die — usually when they’re around 1-year-old — the protein-rich critters are crushed up and made into chicken feed. In the future, cockroach extract may be used to make diet pills for humans.
The man behind the cockroach kingdom is Li Yanrong, a 55-year-old Jinan native who claims his cockroach-recycling warehouse is a first. He thinks his business, Shandong Qiaobin Agriculture Technology Ltd., could be a blueprint for how China deals with waste disposal in the future, and he’s already cooperating with an investment firm that wants to set up businesses in eastern Zhejiang province. Other companies in China and countries like Singapore have attempted similar schemes using different insects. But Li thinks his cockroach plan has staying power. “None of [the other attempts] can be rolled out on a large scale, but cockroach [facilities] can be boundless,” he says.
Although Li now spends his days with a seething mass of cockroaches, he’d never seen one in person until 1990 — the year his only daughter was born. At the time, Li, who previously worked as a statistician, thought of cockroaches as harmful, disease-carrying insects. But that all changed in 2008 when his daughter, who had been studying for an English exam by watching educational videos online, told him more about cockroaches. She explained that the insects had been living on the planet for millions of years, could survive for hours if their heads were cut off, and could be made into medicine to treat indigestion.
Li was intrigued with the idea of utilizing cockroaches. In 2011, he set up an experiment in his dining room to see if cockroaches could be used for garbage disposal. Li bought cockroach eggs from a local farm, put them into a fish tank, and began feeding the hatched roaches different kinds of food. From super spicy Sichuan dishes, to oily local cuisine — whatever Li gave the cockroaches, they gobbled it up.
Li was overjoyed that the cockroaches weren’t picky eaters, but his almost yearlong experiment irritated his wife, who found the smell of cockroaches and rotting food unbearably pungent. Luckily for her, Li decided to take his homemade lab to the next level. First, he gathered experts in biology, chemistry, and mechanics to help him map out a production line that would maximize the insects’ uses. When Li started in 2012, he had only a few kilograms of cockroaches; now his warehouse contains over 300 tons of them.
Li Yanrong poses for a photo in his office in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 16, 2018. Qian Zhecheng/Sixth Tone
The cockroaches are housed in a cement room, sealed with small glass windows — but it does little to contain the odor, which is like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. During my August visit, it’s difficult to see any sign of them in the darkness — instead, I can only hear the quiet rustling of millions of tiny legs. A beam of light reveals that the floor is a moving mass of cockroaches crawling over one another as they slurp up mush.
It takes me a few seconds to realize that one is on my side of the glass. “So, some have gotten out?” I ask Li, glancing warily at a dozen or so cockroaches scuttling between my feet.
Left: Grooved panels are used as plates for cockroaches to eat mush; Right: A conveyor system transports dead cockroaches, egg cases, and excrement inside of Li Yanrong’s new cockroach farm in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 16, 2018. Qian Zhecheng/Sixth Tone
It’s something Li has been questioned about numerous times: the possibility of his cockroaches escaping not just from the enclosure, but from the warehouse. After state media newspaper People’s Daily interviewed him — one of his very first interviews — he bought numerous issues of the paper, which are now in two stacks on his office kitchen counter. He’s since been in the Chinese media numerous times, and has worked to reassure people that the cockroach Armageddon they might be picturing will never come to pass. “Every reporter that actually visits my factory leaves without this concern in their heart,” Li tells me. Li’s currently building a new cockroach facility which will take extra precautions to prevent any potential horror movie scenarios — installing surveillance cameras, an automated conveyor system, and water to wash away any escapees.
Even if the cockroaches did get out, they wouldn’t survive long, says Li. In the seven years that Li has raised cockroaches, they’ve cycled through 1,000 generations. The domesticated insects are now unable to survive in the outside world, as they’re accustomed to the temperature and humidity Li has created for them. Li’s words ring true: I haven’t spotted any living cockroaches outside the warehouse, except for one lying on its back near the door, legs twitching.
The biggest challenge isn’t the cockroaches escaping — it’s getting the food scraps to them in the first place. For food waste to be processed, it needs to be separated from inorganic waste, says Song Guojun, an environment studies professor at Renmin University of China. He believes the government isn’t doing enough to encourage waste separation at source. Currently, there are no compulsory directives on how to deal with food waste, although a law around the categorization of household trash is expected to come into force in 2020. Based on his research, Song estimates that if everyone in China separated and cleaned their trash before collection, the amount of garbage going to incineration factories would be halved. And while incineration might be a cheap method for companies, it costs around 1,500 yuan ($200) to incinerate 1 ton of food waste once environmental protection measures are factored in, he says.
If Jinan were to roll out separated waste collection anywhere, it would likely be at the city’s most famous scenic spot, Daming Lake — some 40 kilometers away from Li’s new factory. At the lake, a voice over the loudspeaker proclaims: “Civilization is the most beautiful scenery.” A nearby kebab store has only two bins beside it — recyclable and nonrecyclable. Some customers put sticks with the meat still attached in the recycling bin, while others put theirs in the nonrecyclable one. “We are only in charge of putting all waste into one bucket; then, we let the park handle it,” says a staff member at the store, who refuses to give his full name. Even Li’s longtime employee admits he doesn’t do source separation himself: There’s no food waste bin in his neighborhood.
When it comes to food waste from households, Li believes it’s out of his hands. “As long as households do source separation, my cockroaches can eat up all their food waste,” he says.
A view of the construction site for Li Yanrong’s new cockroach farm in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 16, 2018. He plans to build a greenhouse on top of the warehouse. Qian Zhecheng/Sixth Tone
There’s one final problem for Li — he’s yet to make money from his scheme. Many Chinese recycling companies make money from government subsidies aimed at supporting clean energy. Li says he hasn’t received any cash subsidies from the government, although the authorities deliver the food waste to his factory for free. There’s hope for him yet: In late 2017, he began selling animal feed made from crushed cockroaches to local farmers.
Li’s hoping the new facility — which he plans to open later this year — will make his cockroach scheme even easier. In the new, half-completed facility, feed will be delivered to the roaches automatically rather than poured into tubes by the staff. The heat and excrement generated by the cockroaches will be used to grow vegetables, which he can then sell. With a smoother process, he believes his facility will be easier to replicate and roll out in the biggest cities across the country. “Once we automate, everything will be easier,” Li says, sweat streaming down his face as he helps the construction team. “I believe, after three or four years, my cockroaches could even gobble up all the food waste from every restaurant in China.”
Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.
(Header image: Liu Zheng for Sixth Tone)