Food Waste and Recycling in China: A Growing Trend?

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 By Wanqing Zhou

Note: an earlier version of this article was previously published, in two installments, by Brighter Green.

Waitresses clear tables in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. (Photo credit: China.org.cn)

As household incomes, urban populations, and overall food consumption in China continue to rise, the country faces serious problems of food waste, natural resource scarcity, and overflowing landfills. Currently, over 200 billion Yuan’s (US$32 billion) worth of food is thrown away annually nationwide, even as 128 million Chinese live below the poverty line and often lack sufficient food.

In November 2012, the Rome Film Festival premiered “Back to 1942,” which tells the story of a famine in the central Henan Province during World War II.  The film spurred discussion about the Great Famine, in which 45 million people starved as a consequence of the Great Leap Forward, the country’s modernizing effort back in the late 1950s. Today, the Great Famine still affects the psyche of the average Chinese citizen—higher average incomes have led, in many cases, to overconsumption and waste of food.

In Beijing university cafeterias, students often throw away about one-third of their food. “That’s normal,” said one student. “We seldom pack up leftovers. It’s inconvenient because we don’t have a microwave oven in our dorm to reheat it.”

Then why order more than enough? “It looks good to have at least the same number of dishes as the number of people. Common sense, isn’t it?”

Recently, the London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report estimating that 30–50 percent of the world’s food is wasted annually. This includes food lost during harvesting, storage, transportation, and sales, as well as at home.

In China, about 70 percent of all waste and 61 percent of household waste is food scraps. Researchers from China Agricultural University studied data from 2006 to 2008 and found that edible food thrown out by restaurants each year is equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the country’s annual crop production, or enough to feed 200 million people.

In an attempt to reduce these numbers, China’s grassroots Clean Plate Initiative advocates for zero food waste when dining out. As the movement spreads and an increasing number of citizens and organizations join in, more and more people are aware of the issue and willing to act. This is good news and good timing, given that the Chinese Spring Festival (or Chinese New Year) involves preparing the biggest feasts of the year.

Food scrap recycling in Beijing

Yet the story does not stop at dining tables. To make China’s agricultural system ultimately sustainable, what grows from the soil needs to return to the soil, by whatever pathway.

Beijing started implementing garbage sorting and food scrap recycling in 2000. In March 2012, the Beijing Municipal Garbage Management Ordinance came into force, encouraging communities and households to participate in kitchen waste recycling.

But assessing the program’s success is difficult. According to official statistics, by 2011, 50 percent of Beijing’s municipal garbage was sorted well enough for recycling. In contrast, a study by Tsinghua University revealed that, for the same year, only 4.4 percent of sampled communities sorted their trash well enough for recycling.

Beijing households generate an estimated 11,000 metric tons of kitchen waste daily, and restaurants add another 2,500 tons. But the city’s four kitchen waste management facilities together can handle only 1,200 tons a day—less than 10 percent of what is needed. As a result, in many communities, recycling bins head to the same destination as other containers: landfills or incineration plants.

Reducing food waste

To move toward greater food security in China and around the world, consumers, grocery stores, and restaurants could waste less food. Fortunately, some organizations and individuals are taking steps to ensure that less food goes to waste.

New York City, for example, has implemented a practical system for collecting food scraps to turn into compost. At the city’s Greenmarkets (large-volume farmers markets), people can voluntarily drop off food scraps for composting. Since 2007, 450 metric tons of food scraps have been recycled by this means alone. A similar system could be implemented in China, where wet markets for produce, meat, and other items are already part of many peoples’ daily lives.

Additionally, the Xicheng District in Beijing plans to push for on-site treatment of food scraps in large canteens and restaurants in 2013. The resulting fertilizer could be applied to nearby green spaces, which could both improve soil quality and raise awareness about food waste and the importance of composting.

Reducing food waste by producers and consumers, facilitating municipal food-scrap recycling, and emphasizing the importance of resource conservation can all help make China’s food production system more sustainable.

Have you heard of other programs that work to reduce food waste around the world?

Wanqing Zhou is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s China Program.

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