Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part I)

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part I)

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A half eaten plate of food. Ready for the trash?

Wanqing Zhou is a guest blogger for Brighter Green.

As a major producer and consumer of agricultural products on the planet, China faces a serious problem of food waste as it takes off towards a sustainable urbanization and industrialization. In order to mend the cycle of food, it is critical for all groups in the society to recognize the issue in an environmental context, and face the challenge collaboratively.

The Appetite: Growing and Spilling
Released two months ago, Back to 1942, a film telling the story of a famine in Henan Province during the World War II, spurred discussion about the Great Famine in early 1960s, one of the post effects of the Great Leap Forward that still affects the food consumption psyche of average Chinese. The Great Famine encouraged the world to analyze China’s food security, as outlined in Lester Brown’s 1995 book Who Will Feed China?

Ironically, in a university cafeteria in Beijing, one can see students throwing away about 1/3 of the food. “That’s normal,” said one student, “we seldom pack up leftovers. If nobody asks, I won’t ask. And it’s inconvenient because we don’t have a microwave oven in our dorm to reheat it.”

Then why order more than enough? “Well, it looks good to have at least the same number of dishes as the number of people. Common sense, isn’t it?” This is an example of what has become an underlying problem: the desire to appear abundant. This problem leads to extensive waste when the bill is paid with public funds.

This problem shines a light on the lack of basic components in the education system – knowledge about the Planet Earth. When dumping food becomes so easy for young people, it is extremely difficult for any society to step into sustainability.

The facts about food waste might be more disturbing than one could imagine. Recently, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report on food waste, estimating that 30-50% of the annual global food production is wasted. The astonishing result covers food lost during harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as those thrown away by retailers and consumers.

In China, about 70% of national waste is food, and food makes up 61% of household waste. Researchers from China Agricultural University studied data from 2006 to 2008 and found that edible food thrown away from restaurants each year is equivalent to nearly 10% of the country’s annual crop production, which is enough to feed 200 million people. When including the waste from schools, businesses and households, the number can easily reach 300 million people.

In response to these numbers, a Clean Plate Initiative is heating up the social networks right now, advocating for zero food waste when dining out. As the movement has spread and an increasing number of netizens, including familiar faces and food businesses, have joined in. More and more people have become aware of the issue and are acting. Good news and good timing, given the coming Chinese Spring Festival is the biggest feast of the year.

Yet the story does not end at dining tables. To complete the cycle of nature, what grows from the soil needs to return to the soil, regardless of the pathway.

Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard (Part II)

End of blog.

Photo Courtesy of CmdrGravy on Flickr