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Waste in China

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The principles are the same as everywhere else.

1 Reduce

1.1 Reduce consumption
The best way to deal with waste is to generate very little of it and the most immediate and effective way of doing this is to reduce consumption. It was recently reported that the government of China is drafting a law that would penalize people for wasting food by over-ordering. The article said that, in large cities, about 17 million tons of food – enough to feed 30-50 million people – was wasted in 2015 and that a quarter of it was staple foods and about 18% meat. You don’t have to live in China to know how easy it is to over-order in Chinese restaurants but other many cultures persistently overfeed guests. The twin driver behind this government directive is food security and productivity. Why struggle to grow food or pay to import food if 20% of it is going to be thrown away? The message is to reduce waste. I now understand these signs in the university’s Dining Hall No. 2.

Honor for Thrift, Shame on Waste is something more than a slogan. Supermarket queues are lengthened by people redeeming virtual coupons on selected items that need to be separately scanned and paid for. It seems an uncharacteristically inefficient system I can only comprehend by assuming the public display of thrift is as important as actual money saved. We would call this virtue signaling but another manifestation is the supermarket helpers who will tell you you’re entitled to a discount on some items in your basket and will help you download an app, register you, log you in, and then guide you and your basket to a separate checkout. The whole operation will take maybe ten minutes I can’t reconcile with the actual money saved but it’s no bad thing. We should all strive to live only with what we need, and to continually reconsider what it is we need.

In the West we hear much of nose-to-tail eating and think it’s clever yet frugal and occasionally moral in the sense of “if one’s going to eat animals then one should at least eat all of it.” In China it’s more a matter of resourcefulness born of historic famine. In the UK, liver and kidneys are still widely available but tripe, brains, tongue and pigs’ trotters less so. I see all these daily, as well as beak-to-claw staples such as duck tongue, goose webs and chicken feet. My copy of Fuschia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice arrived yesterday. In the foreword, Dunlop describes how Chinese cuisine evolved to use powerful combinations of condiments, sauces and processes to make simple ingredients, often vegetables, more flavorsome. Banquet food may have baroque excesses of ingredients and processes but the basis of the food culture is to extract maximum flavor out of anything that can be eaten.

“The Chinese know, perhaps better than anyone else, how to eat. I’m not talking here about their haute cuisine, or their ancient tradition of gastronomy. I”m talking about the ability of ordinary Chinese home cooks to transform humble and largely vegetarian ingredients into wonderful delicacies, and to eat in a way that not only delights the sense, but also makes sense in terms of health, economy and the environment.”

This characteristic of not leaving anything to waste extends far far further than food. I see it not as mean-spirited penny pinching or a virtuous frugality but as simply wanting to extract maximum food value from something whether animal, fish, plant, crustacean, mollusc ….. Nutritional value is just one aspect of this integrated performance.

Image by romana chapman / Getty Images

1.2 Reduce packaging
Another way to minimize waste is to reduce packaging. Buying food sold with a minimum of packaging helps. That food is most likely to be fresh and unprocessed, perhaps with soil still clinging to it. It’s almost certainly seasonal. This week, mangoes were suddenly everywhere. Last week was strawberries. Supermarkets have large fresh food sections where you pick your own vegetables and have them weighed. You can select your fish from an aquarium and then have it gutted and filleted and receive the heads and bones separately. Fresh food requires only the thinnest of plastic bags to weigh it and transport it. You bring your own shopping bag or pay extra for a plastic one and bring that next time. Anything in a bottle or jar is most likely some paste, sauce, oil, vinegar or condiment. My local supermarket is reasonably sized but you won’t find canned fish or tomatoes. I don’t own a can opener.

Many non-food products come with minimal packaging. Laundry detergent refill packs are cheaper. Kitchen towel is mostly folded, and dispensed from tight packs like tissues. Toilet paper is tightly rolled with no cardboard core. Tissues come in thin plastic packages, as do garbage bags which are flimsy and eager to disintegrate.

1.2 Reuse
In decades gone, clothes and schoolbooks used to be “handed down” from oldest to youngest child. Resourceful mothers would fashion new clothes out of old ones. Knitwear would be unknitted and the wool used to knit new sweaters. “Just as good as a bought one!” was something people said.

1.2.1 Re-use
A few weeks back something I’d ordered was delivered in a small shoe box with two sheets of crumpled newspaper as padding. It was no more than necessary but it was also a perfect example of re-use. I didn’t think to take a photo.

1.2.2 Re-form
Combustible waste may be given another life as an energy source and perishable waste may be given another life as organic compost but there are many stages in-between. The word recycle can mean many things but its core meaning of giving things another life is shared by many other processes. Re-form is one of them. A box doesn’t need repurposing in order to be used again. It’s still a box and doesn’t need to be pulped and re-made into a new one after a single use. A delivery came in this box made from another box. There are jobs we haven’t even thought of yet. Packaging may increase the value of whatever’s being packed but it doesn’t increase its utility. Unboxing isn’t a thing.

This afternoon, some glassware arrived no problem in a reformed box with reformed spacers and newspaper padding.

China used to be a net importer of other countries’ waste for either disposal or for post processing to extract residual utility but in 2017 the imports of 24 different types of rubbish ceased. Nevertheless, that same year China imported 7 million tonnes of plastic and paper from Europe, Japan and the US.

1.2.3 Repair
Another way of extending the life of something is to repair it when it breaks down. This mentality is generally lost in the English speaking counties. TV repairman was a job once. Syrian refugees in Germany discovered that them knowing how to repair things such as washing machines and refrigerators was a marketable skill. At some point replacement will become the better option but in general we tend to draw the line too soon.

2 Recycle
For most of us, recycle means nothing more than sorting rubbish and putting it into different bins and for many this is as good as it gets. Not so. Where I live has the six categories of trash of cardboard, hazardous (batteries, compact fluorescent bulbs, mercury thermometers,etc.), cardboard, plastic, metal, glass, perishable and “other” which is all the composite and difficult-to-categorize things like teabags and what your empty from you vacuum cleaner, etc. These go into their respective bins inside, and then into larger bins outside.

Packaging such as these boxes can be left by the side of the trash bins and the people who sweep the paths will exchange them for money from the recyclable box collection person the next time he comes around on his tricycle.

Outside the estate, streets are kept swept and free of litter by people using carts such as these.

This is a commercial rubbish truck which passes by the same time each day. It makes a sound not unlike an ice-cream van and store staff bring out their trash when they hear it.

The complex in which I live has about 500 apartments housing at least 1,000 people in eight buildings, each of which has its own set of bins openable by scanning a QR code between 7:00am–9:00am and 6:00pm–9:00pm weekdays with an additional midday–2:00pm slot on weekends. The bins are emptied by trucks such as this twice a day and three times a day on weekends.

These trucks then drive off up the street to some local collection centre I’ve yet to find. In 2017, 60% of what can’t be recycled or reused ended up as landfill, and all but 2% of the remainder was incinerated.

Landfills are huge and rapidly filling. In 2017 there were 654 landfill sites and 286 incineration plants to deal with 215 million tonnes of urban household waste, which is 153 kilograms per person. (For comparison, the US produced 264 tonnes of waste in 2018, representing 800 kilograms per person.) In China’s major cities, some 35% of waste was supposed to have been recycled by the end of 2020 but I don’t know if that target was met.

There’s always room for improvement, especially when only 5% of waste is incinerated to produce energy but, at the domestic level in the relatively affluent province of Zhejiang where I live, the good habits all seem be ingrained. I can understand people trying to get it right because things will get very unpleasant very quickly if they don’t.



  • I’ve got to take pictures of the bins set in my current complex and post it here! 1,000 people, European capital, recycling in dense apartments blocks is still a far cry… It only seems to work well when you live in the house or in a small city, where your own trash bag can be easily tracked back to you.