“Sometimes it is not a question of money, or of time when it comes to the environment”, Professor Zhang says, tapping his head, “but we need to change what is up here, in peoples’ minds”.
He should know, his specialism here at Guilin University of Technology is wastewater treatment. When he came back from working in Japan, he founded a Sino-Chinese facility for membrane technology at the Yanshan campus. (When the facilities in the centre of town in Guilin became too cramped, the university developed a new campus one hour away in the countryside. It has the scale of a small European city, with spacious lab and office buildings sitting in manicured gardens, surrounded by the dramatic karst hills of Guangxi province.)
We tour Professor Zhang’s lab, looking at annamox reactors and membrane based systems. What really impressed me though was their scale up facilities, and to crown it all, their experimental facility which takes 20% of the campus wastewater and cleans it up to a standard that can be used for irrigation onsite. It enables them to trial various membrane configurations that they’ve been working on at a meaningful pilot scale, and monitor their effectiveness.
To me, this is a really ambitious project, and on a European campus would be newsworthy. Professor Zhang is pretty modest about what they’ve accomplished, but he’s got plans to look at how to polish the tertiary wastewater and develop their membrane work.
I go for lunch with another researcher, Qin Zhang, who is looking at how changing the electron donors in river sediments can help degrade persistent organic pollutants, another bugbear of waterways. We chat over a delicious lunch of “you cha” or “oil tea” and tarro pancakes. Later (which doesn’t feel like very long) I meet Professor Zhang and his wife who teaches architecture at the university, along with another student who is thinking about studying abroad for her PhD. I am treated to another amazing Guangxi dinner. They are generous and wonderful hosts, and we have a brilliant meal filled with laughter and their interesting stories. It is evenings like these that make this trip so mind-blowing.
We return to this morning’s conversation. Professor Zhang is right, and his words echo what many of the people that I’ve visited have said. It isn’t a lack of resources per se, the environment simply isn’t valued the same way as a bank balance. How do you change perspectives? Long term, education is obviously the answer, but if we have to wait 20 or 30 years for that to bear fruit, then what? Do we monitise biodiversity, and treat it as another commodity? Create stricter regulations and harsher punishments? It seems like industry is a fluid thing that seeks the path of least resistance. It simply seeps to the next location where controls are lax, displacing the problem elsewhere.