Roach Re­cy­clers

En­tre­pre­neur raises mil­lions of bugs to tackle food waste prob­lem

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Global Times – Peo­ple’s Daily Page Edi­tor: zhangyu@glob­al­times.com.cn

In a food waste re­cy­cling plant in Zhangqiu district in Ji­nan, East China’s Shan­dong Prov­ince, piles of food waste, freshly de­liv­ered here from lo­cal restau­rants and can­teens, are wait­ing to be re­cy­cled – by cock­roaches.

Af­ter be­ing ground, the food is pumped into glass con­tain­ers in the plant through a pipe, then de­voured by mil­lions of cock­roaches.

For most peo­ple, cock­roaches are pests that can leave an of­fen­sive odor, trans­mit viruses on their body sur­faces and taint food. But Li Yan­rong, a tech­ni­cian-turned en­tre­pre­neur from Ji­nan, has suc­cess­fully turned them into pro­fes­sional re­cy­clers af­ter spend­ing years study­ing the no­to­ri­ous in­sect.

At the re­cy­cling plant, which dou­bles as a cock­roach farm, the roaches feed on 15 tons of food waste ev­ery day, more than a third of all food waste gen­er­ated from Zhangqiu’s restau­rants and can­teens. Pre­vi­ously, most of it would have ended up in land­fills, caus­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems for the ar­eas where they were buried.

Now, the roaches can not only de­com­pose the waste leav­ing lit­tle residue, but also turn it into some­thing use­ful. Af­ter the cock­roaches die, their bod­ies, known to have high pro­tein and ni­tro­gen lev­els, will be made into cock­roach pow­der to be used as a pro­tein source for an­i­mal feed.

Next to the con­tain­ers is an in­cu­ba­tor, a warm and hu­mid en­vi­ron­ment where young cock­roach nymphs are bred. The 54-year-old said the num­ber of cock­roaches are grow­ing ex­po­nen­tially, thanks to their re­silience and fast-breed­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

In 2014, there were only 400 kilo­grams of cock­roaches in the plant. In 2015, the num­ber surged to four tons, and this year, it’s pro­jected that over 3,000 tons of cock­roaches will be pro­duced here.

Mul­ti­ple uses

Cock­roaches, com­monly seen in south­ern China, don’t usu­ally ap­pear in Li’s home­town. Li said he had never seen the in­sect un­til 1990, when he was 27 years old. With its dark-brown, flat­tened body and a pair of wings, the in­sect fright­ened him at first when he spot­ted them in the kitchen, and just like most peo­ple, his im­me­di­ate in­stinct was to kill the pest.

It wasn’t un­til 2008 that he started study­ing the in­sect, af­ter his daugh­ter’s re­search into cock­roaches for a school project sparked his in­ter­est.

Through his daugh­ter, Li learned that cock­roaches, dat­ing back to some 320 mil­lion years ago, are one of the most an­cient and re­silient crea­tures on earth.

In some places in China, cock­roaches are nick­named “oil thieves” due to their pen­chant for oil and fer­mented food. Cock­roaches are also a raw ma­te­rial in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine, known to be able to pro­mote detox­i­fi­ca­tion.

Li also read that in­sects, in­clud­ing cock­roaches, are a source of nu­tri­tious food as they con­tain high pro­tein lev­els. Li, who used to work at a re­cy­cling com­pany in Ji­nan, has long be­lieved that ev­ery­thing has its use, and the idea of rais­ing cock­roaches soon sprang into his mind.

Af­ter do­ing some re­search, Li found there were al­ready sev­eral roach farms in Shan­dong that pro­vide raw ma­te­rial for medicine com­pa­nies. Li vis­ited th­ese farms seek­ing to gain ex­pe­ri­ence, and was dis­ap­pointed when he learned how costly it was to run the busi­ness. Most of th­ese fam­ily-run farms feed cock­roaches with grain, and the cost for breed­ing each ton of cock­roaches can hit 10,000 yuan ($1,527). The re­tail price, how­ever, is some­times only sev­eral dozen yuan for a kilo­gram.

But he strength­ened his idea af­ter An Feng, di­rec­tor of Zhangqiu’s en­vi­ron­men­tal san­i­ta­tion cen­ter, told him about the dif­fi­culty of deal­ing with food waste. Af­ter land­fill, food waste can pol­lute ground­wa­ter and re­sult in health is­sues for res­i­dents. So why not feed cock­roaches with food waste?

Home grown

In Oc­to­ber 2011, Li bought a fish tank and started to breed his own cock­roaches. Af­ter get­ting his wife’s per­mis­sion, he ob­tained dozens of cock­roach eggs, known as ootheca, placed them in the tank, and started to ob­serve the re­pro­duc­tion habits of the cock­roaches in his toi­let.

Dur­ing that time, when Li re­turned home ev­ery evening, he would sit in front of the fish tank and check if any changes had oc­curred in his mini cock­roach farm.

About 20 days later, one hatch­ling slit its egg open. It was a bright white nymph, re­sem­bling a white ant. Other hatch­lings started to come out too. Li threw a rice ball into the tank, and the nymphs soon crowded over it and chowed it down.

Within hours af­ter their birth, the nymphs be­came darker and harder. They then went through a month­s­long pe­riod when they shelled mul­ti­ple times and even­tu­ally grew into adults.

In or­der to test the cock­roaches’ eat­ing habits, the cou­ple started to feed the roaches with dif­fer­ent kinds of food – spicy, sour, even rot­ten. It turned out the nymphs had no sense of taste or smell at all. They also have strong im­mune sys­tems that al­low them to di­gest vir­tu­ally any­thing.

As the cock­roaches grew larger, the tank started to smell. Li was also afraid that the cock­roaches would one day es­cape the tank, which would have been cat­a­strophic for his fam­ily.

He then moved the tank to a house on a hill, made a few wooden boxes, and asked his brother-in-law to fur­ther breed and ob­serve the in­sects. When­ever he had time, he would visit the hill and study their be­hav­ior.

Be­fore, Li heard that cock­roaches were filthy bugs that defe­cate on their own food. Through ob­ser­va­tion, he found that cock­roaches never defe­cated or crawled over what they ate. They usu­ally cir­cled the food and ate from the out­side to the in­side. They also eat in turn, rather than squeez­ing against each other.

In or­der to ex­e­cute his plan, he had to breed roaches in the thou­sands, even mil­lions. How to breed them in such large quan­ti­ties be­came a prob­lem. Li’s so­lu­tion was to cre­ate a three-di­men­sional farm – the top level would be used for food in­put, while older, dy­ing roaches fell to the lower level.

Li also tested the cock­roach pow­der and found that chick­ens fed with the pow­der were not only health­ier but also grew stronger and faster than nor­mal chick­ens. The eggs of the chicken also have thicker shells.

In his three years of study­ing the cock­roaches, Li ap­plied for over 30 patents, and two have been ap­proved. In 2014, he ap­proached An Feng and asked if the en­vi­ron­men­tal san­i­ta­tion cen­ter could pro­vide him food waste for free. An was happy to do it as it was a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to land­fills.

By the end of 2015, Li had re­signed from his old job and launched his own com­pany, com­mit­ting him­self fully to the cock­roaches – and his re­cy­cling plant.

Food waste

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