When Anti-Waste Becomes A Movement in China

When Anti-Waste Becomes A Movement in China

Leftovers at a restaurant in China

During an interview with Legal Weekly, Mr. Xu Zhijun, the initiator of the food waste campaign “Operation Empty Plate”, said he did not want the operation to become a movement. While the campaign received endorsement from Mr. Xi Jinping, the Communist Party’s new leader, and had been linked to Mr. Xi’s fight against corruption, the idea of a “social reform movement” (as embraced by the Global Times ) might have altered the original intention of the campaign in some ways.

Mr. Xi’s endorsement showed strong support and helped “Operation Empty Plate” achieve an unexpected influence. The food waste issue became part of people’s daily conversations, which is encouraging for every individual who cares about agricultural practices, natural resources, and climate change (Read also: Food Waste and Recycling in China: Too Easy, Too Hard ).

The connection between anti-waste and anti-corruption is well justified too, because a large portion of food waste comes from government officials’ dining tables. According to Professor Zhou Xiaozheng, Director of the Institute of Law and Social Sciences at Renmin University of China, since the issuance of Mr. Xi’s eight-point guide for official conduct at the end of 2012, an average of 3,000 metric tons of kitchen waste per day had been reduced in Beijing (20-30% of total kitchen waste, depending on the data source), mainly due to reduced public consumption. It was indeed good news to officials who were not big fans of conspicuous consumption, for they could use the guide to avoid lavishing and not-always-enjoyable banquets.

However, as the operation against food waste develops into a movement of political importance, it may render the campaign short-lived, instead of making real changes in the institutional system.

This confusing contradiction could be explained by the inertia in the bureaucratic system. When there’s a guide from the central government, the first reaction of government officials is usually a default response – to “deal with it” and show support as quickly as possible – rather than thinking through the rationale behind it and the necessity of certain calls.

This time, because “cherishing food, reducing waste” is a concept so basic, familiar, and undoubtedly right, thinking is even less needed. As a result, responses from some officials and companies resemble a conditional reflex, lacking real understanding of the purpose of the guide.

A relatively extreme example was seen at a governmental agency: the annual banquet was urgently called off when the starters had already been served. Consequently, even more food was wasted, since the main dishes were likely prepared but never served, while the attendees dismissed their hunger and had to find their dinners elsewhere. This action was not only a potential reason for an acute version of “revenge consumption”, where individuals consume more food, but might also create antagonistic emotions against the campaign.

On the other hand, as the inertia in official circles has not been efficiently overcome by stringent regulations or enforcements, it is not hard to foresee the relapse of lavishness and pomp. While some academics are calling for legislation against food waste, especially in official occasions, it remains questionable how fast the process will be, as initiation has yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, the bureaucratic inertia is not restricted with in the bureaucracy. As the anti-waste movement entered schools with similar default responses to “deal with it” without thinking through the movement’s rationale or necessity, what could have been a perfect opportunity to educate the younger generation about food waste might also have resulted in counteraction.

Stressed by the necessity to clean their plate, some primary school students got too nervous about leftovers . In one case, a student forced himself to eat a veggie dish he didn’t like and the process was so painful that he eventually threw up; another student cried when meatballs were mistakenly put on his tray by the kitchen staff, fearing criticism for not finishing them.

These examples might sound extreme, but there is no doubt that schools need to rethink their approach and encourage waste reduction in a more flexible, creative, and well-designed way. The campaign still has the chance to shape a more interactive school lunch system, which emphasizes better communication between students, teachers, kitchen crews, and parents.

Many environmental activists agree that human society needs an urgent and broad change in people’s consumption style, which requires fighting against society’s resilience. With a better regulatory system, the relapse of conspicuous consumption could be prevented to a large extent, even if individuals’ mind-sets are not completely ready for the transformation yet.

An ideal movement may effectively influence each individual and thus foster profound transformation; a successful movement can at least create and enforce regulations through an improved legal system; while an unsuccessful movement that fails to go deeper than the surface will only disappear with ripples. What this anti-waste movement is able to achieve still remains to be answered.

Photo courtesy of Katie L Masters