NANCHANG, March 16 (Xinhua) -- Just one year after the first "waste bank" opened in Nuanshui Village in east China's Jiangxi Province, locals can already see a difference.
The once endless plastic bags scattered all over the village in Longtoushan Township are now nowhere to be found.
"We used to go out every day to collect trash. Now the villagers voluntarily bring them to the bank," said Dong Weiwei, the township's environmental sanitation official and the head of the bank, where villagers hand in garbage in exchange for rewards.
"The streets are clean and tidy, and so is the river," said villager Zhu Caiying.
The waste bank in Nuanshui village opened in April last year, and more than 700 villagers -- about one-fifth of Nuanshui's population -- have since collected more than 20 tonnes of garbage, mostly cigarette butts, used plastic bags, batteries and beverage cans that were once carelessly tossed away.
Collectors are rewarded with items such as soap, tissues, pencils and notebooks for their efforts in protecting the environment.
For instance, eighty used plastic bags, 40 batteries, or 200 cigarette butts can be exchanged for a bar of soap.
Now a total of 97 such banks are operating in Dexing City, which administers Longtoushan Township.
"I never thought garbage could have an economic value," said 66 year-old Wang Xiuying.
Untreated garbage has been a major issue in rural China due to lack of funds for organized garbage collection and some bad habits in waste disposal among locals.
"The plastic bags were everywhere. We had six cleaners to collect them every day, but people just kept throwing them away," Zhang Chunlian, the township head told Xinhua a year ago.
Now it has all changed.
With an annual expenditure of about 20,000 yuan (about 2,900 U.S. dollars) per bank, the program has led to a cleaner environment at a much lower cost, as the government previously spent more than 100,000 yuan a year in a village on environmental sanitation.
Similar "environmental protection stations" have also been set up at 18 primary schools in Dexing since August last year.
Sixth-grader Yu Hongping picks up water bottles and used batteries on her way to school.
"I can exchange them for stationery and notebooks, and my parents also support me," she said.
The aim of the waste banks is to change old habits such as littering in rural areas, promote garbage sorting and, in the end, reduce waste, according to Dong.
Despite their success in rural areas, officials have found the waste banks hard to duplicate in cities.
A district in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi, initiated a similar project in 2012, but it was canceled shortly due to the large amount of urban household waste. There were so many categories of waste in the city, and so few that could be exchanged, that the project was inefficient and ineffective.
"The way waste banks work in rural areas does not fit urban areas. Cities should establish garbage sorting systems according to local conditions," said Wang Jifa, head of Dexing's urban management bureau.
Officials are also working hard to expand waste bank operations by providing door-to-door garbage collection in the remote countryside and recycling old clothing and quilts, which local residents said was their biggest concern.
But the clothes take up so much space that they have become a new headache to such banks.
"The waste collected is currently either sold at recycling stations to support the operation of the banks, or burned or buried in landfills, which is not enough. We are working hard to build a unified urban-rural waste disposal system that we hope can transform waste into resources," said local official Tong Quanfeng.