China’s thriving economy doesn’t ever seem to slow down. It’s a competitive country in all aspects now, but growth has its downside. The red dragon faces the same obstacles as the big, industrialized countries in the west, but on a grander scale.
As the Chinese economy speeds up, and its cities grow, topics such as health and sustainability are becoming increasingly urgent. Now more than ever, it’s time to put the subject on the table.
We’ve all heard the news: China is polluted. But how bad is it, really? And what are the Chinese doing about it?
Beijing and Shanghai have a combined population of 45 million people, and it’s this population density that makes pollution hard to overcome. Air pollution has been a hot topic in recent years because it hits so close to home — and so close to the heart. You can see the pollution from the sky as your plane lands. You can literally feel it in the air you breathe.
But there’s another type of pollution, invisible to the eye: food waste. It’s always handled out the back, far from sight. Massive operations of trash collection, disposal, recycling, and re-purposing go on every day, but food waste is an unseen monster. And it’s causing havoc.
June Zhang is a sustainability consultant and researcher. “Sustainability is not just one problem for one sector,” she explains. “It is related to everything, every business and everything in people’s lives.”
June is an environmental expert who works with Collective Responsibility, a project that she describes as: “A group of waste nerds, just wanting to try to follow different waste, just wanting to know where it goes and what happens to it.”
She says there are 500 cities in China producing 50 tons of food waste every day. Bigger cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, produce between 1,000 and 2,000 tons per day.
How does that even happen? Well, Chinese people love dining out, and they love sharing food. Culturally, loading the table with endless plates is not just normal, but mandatory. Generosity and abundance are essential Chinese values, but who takes responsibility for leftovers?
No one. And the food goes into the trash. June remarks that the Chinese produce 88.6 million tons of food waste a year, and that number is rising. That is enough food to feed over 15% of the country’s population, and this is just post-consumer food waste, from plate to bin.
“Don’t over order” is the government message in subway propaganda. It really comes down to that.
Formal and informal waste collectors, recycling companies, and the government all play a part in the massive effort of disposing of food waste. How do they handle all this trash? They barely do.
The system will not be able to catch up to waste production if something doesn’t change. It’s time to take action.
“I’m an optimist,” June says. “The government is trying to push the formalization process, and people are getting more educated about the issue.” She adds, “Technology is rising to the challenge too.”
Since 2010, the government has selected 100 different cities and given them their own chance to explore different technologies alternative waste management systems. Together these pilot cities will find various ways to deal with the problem at a local scale. Cases of success will be replicated over time, but we’re in a hurry for answers now.
“We need more powerful regulation,” June explains. Food waste comes back to you in unexpected ways: unregulated collectors still pick up the trash and feed it to the pigs; the same pigs that end up on your table. It’s not that bad as long as waste is well sorted.
Earthworms that munch on the garbage to make compost are popular in traditional medicine. Disposed oil might end up in the black market and return to dubious kitchens. Scary thoughts, but it’s not all bad.
Soon, restaurants will be charged a fee for the amount of waste they produce, tracked by a modern online system by authorized collectors. This is boosting the market for on-site compost systems in restaurants around the country, but the solution addresses only a small part of the problem.
“People may not know, but there’s actually great value in food waste,” June argues. Compost and especially biofuel are coveted commodities. A few airlines are fueling their jets with food waste biofuel as we speak. “How much the markets can accept the new biofuel?” asks the expert. Time will tell.
Used oil becomes diesel, plastic, and biofuel, and waste becomes compost — all innovations designed to relieve landfills and incinerator plants.
Chinese people are resourceful, and waste management is starting to look like a business opportunity — or at least as a means to earn a living. With the support of the authorities, the will of the people, and an optimistic attitude, cleaner days are to come.
Visit www.coresponsability.com to learn more about food waste and listen to June Zhang’s full interview in Bottled in China podcast.
Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer