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  • Writer's pictureAlizée CCM

Meet Emma & Rocco | Zero Waste Chengdu | KAILU Ep 7 | Sustainability Documentary China

Emma & Rocco, The Entrepreneurs Behind Zero Waste Chengdu

Rocco and Emma are the founders of Zero Waste Chengdu. The first time I heard about them was in the summer of 2019 when Rocco asked me about a compost bin workshop. We only met through video calls until then, but I knew I had to interview them for the KAILU Project.

When I arrived in Chengdu two weeks prior, Rocco and Emma were in lockdown, hence we decided to postpone our meeting to November when I would be driving through Yunnan just south of Sichuan. Thankfully, we didn’t need to wait that long anymore.

With my itinerary changing, and Chengdu clearing the COVID spread, it seemed a new opportunity presented itself. Join me in a conversation with Emma & Rocco, who started Zero Waste Chengdu & Zero Food Waste. The duo is set on changing minds on sustainability issues while also providing solutions to the community (people, companies, schools).

After a hectic time in Gansu, sitting down with these two was such a breath of fresh air. Exactly what the doctor ordered.week's

Read the full interview here below!

Thanks for journeying with us :-)

Watch the episode on YouTube here!

KAILU, The Open Road.

A cross-country journey to meet the Chinese Changemakers in sustainability.

Roadtripping in China


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Alizee CCM - Photography - KAILU

Read an excerpt from the book here:


Tell me about your journey and the beginnings of Zero Waste Chengdu.

[Rocco] I've been very drawn to this idea that we have to save the world. I would say probably the first turning point would be watching The Inconvenient Truth. I was young, I was like maybe 15 years old. I was always curious about, of course, nature and biology and the environment and stuff. But I never really understood this, until the first time I saw a documentary showing the impact that we have on this planet. It originated from there probably and that led me to watch many more, such as Leonardo DiCaprio's NatGeo documentary. That was really good. I have watched pretty much all of those documentaries.

Okay, how about you Emma?

Before I started Zero Waste Chengdu with him, I used to work for an educational consultancy company in alternative education called World of Education. In that world of education, they were always stressing how important the overall awareness of the human being is and how we need to educate not just the brain, but also need to incorporate the heart and the hands. 

     I was very inspired by that part and they do a lot of environmental practices in that school as well. Naturally, I was exposed to a lot of these practical solutions already. Then after I met him he started to introduce to me all of these documentaries which I was never actually exposed to before. I think it is the case with a lot of Chinese people here is, that we lack exposure to this type of information. I started to realize that we needed to do something here. It is an urgent problem.

Emma & Rocco - Zero Waste Chengdu - KAILU Documentary

That's so inspiring. So when you both meet, you realize, you have this shared passion.

[Rocco] Yeah, for sure, I would say it’s a calling. I think it's just the same as anybody working in sustainability. They're part of this movement that believes that we need to make a change. And I think probably even our generation is even more exposed to this idea that it is very urgent.

Well, I think it's also because we are going to see the consequences of it. Before it was too far for people to realize and care, but we are going to feel the consequences. We are already in the climate crisis, but our kids are going to be completely in it. It's the only thing they've ever known. I think that's why we're so passionate about it. 

[Rocco] Yeah, but I think never before also, the world has had so many pacts like the Paris Agreement. The media is telling us that we have ten years. Many scientists have been telling us that we only have a certain amount of time to make it less severe. 

   Also, the fact that China said yes to the Paris Agreement just like many big countries as well. Of course, in the United States back in the day, they said they would commit as well.

In previous generations, there were wars, and I feel that the environmental crisis is the war of our generation. Hence, this sense of mission. 

Couldn’t agree more with that. You started Zero Waste Chengdu in 2020, you just started at the perfect time.

Well if you think about it. Many big companies also started during the recession or big economic problems like Airbnb and Uber. They started in 2008. 

 But yeah, I think the fact that we started in 2020, was because we couldn't hold it anymore. We just needed to start doing something.

"I believe that when we are really serious about something, the universe conspires to help us."

Tell me about that last year.

[Rocco] Right, so it's a very simple idea. We have noticed a lack of awareness in the Chinese audience and public, especially in Chengdu, and we help businesses, schools, and communities to reduce their waste. 

       The first thing we did was study a lot about this. How do we serve better, right? We studied, and we got guidance from you. I remember that the first thing we needed to do was just contact experts and with this idea in mind we contacted you: an expert from Shanghai, with five years of working experience, and we just said, okay, this is doable, this is great, and Chengdu needs this. 

This is not like Shanghai. There's even way less awareness about these topics and people need to know about this and need to start working together.

[Emma] To turn our passion into a professional service, we decided to study the circular economy. On top of that, I took a course from LYNCH University on sustainable urban development, and those two topics helped us to focus and study whatever we need to serve our local community.

     We did that and then through our meeting, you mentioned the TRUE Zero Waste Certification. So we also went into that, got serious about it, took the test, and got ourselves certified.

I believe we can say that it was a time of life transformation for both of us because we were not like startups. One thing is to get professionalized by learning the profession and the other thing is to learn how to sustain the business. 

      How to start a business here from scratch. We didn't even know how to register a company and go through all these legal processes, how to do taxation, etc. We learned so much doing all these things along the way. 

[Rocco] The second thing we did was apply for grants.

[Emma] I believe that when we are serious about something, the universe conspires to help us.  Along the way, we met so many people, good and kind people helping us using their professionalism. 

       For example, in setting up the company, we met a cool girl who helped us to do the accountancy and every legal aspect of it. Then as he mentioned the grant opportunity showed up. We were in these different sustainability groups and someday out of nowhere, he checked the group and saw this grand opportunity specifically about supporting projects in Southwest China, especially Chengdu on sustainability. 

Rocco insisted that we apply, even though we had no experience in applying for any grants before.

First, we wanted to suggest turning a local school into completely zero waste. We saw the light in people’s eyes when we approached them talking about these sustainable projects in schools, and they are welcoming all these projects, but that didn’t work out in the end. 

       We then decided on a zero-waste community and designed the full project in one week. We were writing every day, it just came to us quite naturally. Weird huh?

[Rocco] We found out about the acceptance a month later. It was fantastic to see the fruit of our studies and labor. We put everything that we knew of and thought could work, and now we can test it. We held twelve event campaigns, and every Saturday we organized one event.

        Every week for three months, we organized an event. It was a lot. And simultaneously we also worked on a Zero Food Waste Project with a local hotel. They had asked us to work on a strategy and a solution to reduce their food waste. 

[Emma] This led us to support other events in the city. We help them plan it in a more sustainable way.

In the preparation part of the event, we go through all the list of materials that they buy just for the event and we work with them together to decide which of these ones can be replaced with some more suitable options.    

    During the event, we give people a short presentation explaining the why and the intention, and also what are we going differently from other previous events that they attended before. We manage everything properly.

I would say I was 99% blind to how the whole world is at this stage. Once I got aware of this issue and then did I see opportunities for how we as ordinary individuals can have so much power in making things much better for ourselves. 
So I think if I can do it, I can go through this process. Anybody can.
~ Emma

What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

[Rocco] Yeah, I think we can talk about the challenges we faced because this is, I think, very important and good information for anyone who is or wants to work in sustainability. The biggest problem for me is the misunderstanding that people have about businesses or people who are working in sustainability.          

       It's unfair that a group of people think that we shouldn’t charge money for working for the environment. And interestingly enough, most of those people are from within the sustainability community. 

This means that the support comes from people who don't know much about our industry. They're not even in green groups, they're not reading about sustainability, … It is odd. How come there's this misunderstanding that sustainable companies shouldn't make any money? I can expand on this, but I believe it’s a matter of perception.

I would love to hear you expand on this.

From the community side, I believe it starts with a lot of idealism. Yes, it would be great if tomorrow the whole world is doing fine because we are working for it, and everybody's good and everything is good. But that's not going to happen. This is not a viable way of thinking about it. The more money you have as a sustainable business, the bigger impact you can have. 

So this idealistic view needs to be followed by actions like we were discussing earlier.

On the other side, I believe, I hope that people start to understand that sustainability is simply better for everybody. It means more benefits and more consistency. It's more than just paying the right price for products and services. Thankfully more companies are doing something and they are even changing the whole value system. 

           For example, Patagonia has been growing financially every year, but also consequently in the impact that they have. They are constantly asking their customers to not buy too much, to repair it first, or only buy what they need. The more they do this, the bigger they become. That's also an important message for people who are so extreme here. 

[Emma] Public awareness, I would say is another challenge. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity because it forces me to be more creative in how to get them involved and aware. Thinking of my personal experience, as a Chinese before I met you (Rocco), truly I didn't have so much exposure to the information that I have nowadays. And I would say I was 99% blind to how the whole world is at this stage.

Once I got aware of this issue and then did I see opportunities for how we as ordinary individuals can have so much power in making things much better for ourselves. So I think if I can do it, I can go through this process. Anybody can.

Emma & Rocco - Zero Waste Chengdu - KAILU DocumentaryEmma & Rocco - Zero Waste Chengdu - KAILU Documentary

What is the vision for you both? 

[Rocco] For Zero Food Waste, it's pretty clear. I think we would like to be THE company that people can access when they want affordable food from really cool and amazing places. Also, I would like to help more communities to reduce their waste. 

          It could become more educational as well and Zero Waste Chengdu becomes the go-to for people to find sustainable solutions, whatever it is they are thinking about: oh, I need to recycle my phone, I need to recycle this. Or how can I be more sustainable at work? Or how can I compost my food waste? Food waste in a zero-waste platform? 

[Emma] Yeah, I would say to expand and have users in all the majors in, let's say, capital cities in China.

But in all honesty, I am just happy to see people find more meaning in life through this movement. This reminds me of a recent assignment we had with a French luxury brand. They had just released a season around the color green, where they made everything vibrant green, and from there came the idea to DO something green, as in, for the planet.   

        They reached out to us and asked if we could organize team-building activities. We suggested Plugging and they happily said yes. Plugging is running and picking up trash, and the most interesting thing for us was to witness a contrast in perception. These people work hard to be able to serve one of the fanciest stores in West China, and all the managers supervising big teams are now running around in the streets, picking up trash and running around like happy children. 

Honestly, this is one of my favorite things.

I love that. It’s inspiring to hear you talk.

[Rocco] I would like to say that you have been a big inspiration for all of us. Thank you, really, for taking the leap as well.

You were the first one that started the whole thing five years ago. And it's also amazing to see the number of ideas and activities happening in the zero-waste group that you started. To me, it's just beautiful. It's beautiful. It's beautiful. You have helped so many people and trying to just find ways to make their businesses sustainable, like working on sustainability.  It is nice to see so many people, first, interested in sustainability, second, sharing things that they believe are worth it, and third, having an honest conversation about it.

A lot of the time the group gets intense because there's one opinion or one idea being challenged, and this is beautiful. Having all these people in this group was very inspiring. I am, in many zero-waste groups in China, and the best one is in Shanghai. The best one is in Shanghai because it's the place where things happen. 

[Emma] Yeah, I like the diversity of Shanghai because I'm also in other Chinese groups and what people share there. First, I noticed people are quite shy generally, and they don't express their personal opinions that much in those groups. And secondly, what they share in the group links, even if there are some opinions involved, tends to be quite mild and does not touch the core issue that much. 

Well, I think Shanghai itself is a very special place because it is a place of transition. When people come there, they know they have three, or five years to make something happen. The energy in Shanghai is quick because I cannot wait for you for two, six, or eight months. It has to happen tomorrow, next week. It's extremely fast. But thank you for the compliment and for acknowledging my work. It makes me happy to know I have positively influenced you. 

Is there a mantra that you live by? 

[Rocco] “Don't ever let the past be better than your future.” 

This is something I always try to remember, especially at this age. I'm 33, I'm supposed to be at the best age of my life, and I better work hard for that. I'm trying to work on improving my future, and not only mine but the whole country and people around me.

[Emma] Mine is going to sound a little bit funnier. If I can, you can. 

Throughout my own life, I had to constantly reinvent myself and change, change careers, and change a lot of things that I did. If I can manage to go through these transitions and share them with people, then they can hopefully make use of my experience to make changes in their own lives.

Sustainability Documentary China


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