Restaurant kitchen scraps and cafeteria leftovers are usually things people would happily avoid.
However, Jiang Nenghui, a junior at Hunan University of Commerce Beijin College in Changsha, Hubei Province has spent one year sifting through scraps in the city as part of research for planning a kitchen waste recycling company. His proposal not only won first prize at the 4th Hunan College Student Business Competition last April, but also attracted the attention of investors in May.
In 2008, when Jiang was a sophomore, he found his university dining halls produced an enormous amount of waste daily.
As a logistics major interested in environmentally friendly solutions, Jiang began to wonder how much of this total waste is produced in Changsha everyday and how it is dealt with.
In order to find the answer, Jiang recruited five volunteers from his university in August 2008 to help him investigate.
They six then began their research in March 2009 at hotels, restaurants and dining halls of the universities in Changsha, and interviewed local sanitation professionals.
After half a month's research, they found that more than 600 metric tons of kitchen waste is produced everyday in Changsha, only 10 percent of which is recycled. About 70 percent is used for pig feed while 20 percent is suspected in making illegal cooking oil.
"If kitchen waste is used for feed or making oil, it is especially harmful as it most likely contains toxic substances which might cause cancer," Jiang said.
After reading articles about waste management in China and consulting professionals, Jiang learned that the local governments solved the problem by contracting out kitchen waste collection to private sanitation companies.
Jiang also learned that some companies had developed technologies to recycle the waste into fuel or fertilizer.
"Only after being recycled will the waste not harm the environment or humans, and can create economic benefit," Jiang said.
But collecting the kitchen waste posed its own problems.
The government was unable to collect much of it because some farms and cooking oil manufacturers had offered higher prices to collect the waste than the government contracted recycling companies did, he said.
"Feeding livestock with swill can save farmers 100 yuan ($15), while selling waste to cooking oil makers can earn restaurants or hotel owners as much as 10,000 yuan a month," Jiang explained. "Much more profitable than dealing with recycling companies."
Based on this information, Jiang proposed to set up a recycling company that offers a more competitive price.
The company would then recycle the waste into high protein feed, bioorganic fertilizer, commercial grease and clean marsh gas.
This in turn would be sold to farmers, planters and factories at about 5-8 percent below the market price.
"We estimate such a company in Changsha can make 800,000 yuan profit a year," he said.
Jiang's idea was recommended to represent his university and take part in the Hunan College Student Business Competition on April 23.
Upon learning he had won the first prize two days later, Jiang said he felt so happy because it added honor to his university. But what made him happier was that a month ago, a local environmental protection company that had learned about Jiang and his project through media coverage contacted him and expressed interest in cooperating with Jiang.
"If this can actually be set up, my year's effort would be really worth it," Jiang said.
He Dongping, a professor at Wuhan Polytechnic University in Hubei Province, who gained notoriety this May after exposing the illegal cooking oil problem in China, explained that the feasibility of Jiang's proposal depends largely on the government.
"Such a company has to invest at least 50 million yuan minimum in startup capital for equipment and staff," He said.
"Recycling technology, which is usually controlled by State research organizations, is key. Anything other than the most advanced technology would very easily lead to secondary pollution while recycling," he said.
"Without government funding and technical support, I don't think there are many private companies that have enough capital and technological resources to start such a business easily."
However, He expressed his respect and admiration for these students.
"They are young people with the sense of social responsibility. It is worth encouraging their idea," He said.
"Even if their proposal is not realized in the end, what they have done can arouse both people and governments' attention to this waste management problem," he