From waste sorting programmes to a nationwide push for more sustainable practices, China’s waste problem has soared to the top of the agenda
As reports hit headlines of president Xi Jinping’s call to cut “shameful” food waste, Shaanxi’s mega Jiangcungou landfill reaching capacity two decades ahead of schedule, and rising plastic waste polluting its waters, China’s growing waste crisis is in the spotlight. Adopting a series of ambitious strategies, from stringent sorting schemes to reducing single-use plastics, waste management is at the forefront of the country’s sustainability agenda.
But as foodservice operators across the world grapple with waste, we explore what China’s new regulations mean for the industry and how venues are pushing for a more sustainable future.
Waste sorting 101
Home to 1.4 billion people, China is the world’s second largest producer of municipal solid waste (MSW), the majority of which is food waste. It’s not only the amount polluting the country – a lack of enforced sorting has also seen disproportionate amounts of waste piling up in landfills or burnt in incinerators.
Leading the waste management charge in July 2019, megacity Shanghai was the first to implement what is widely considered to be the country’s most ambitious rubbish sorting laws to date. Targeting both individuals and companies, the solid waste law requires rubbish be separated into four categories – wet, dry, hazardous and recyclable – with restricted drop-off and collection times. Those who don’t comply risk fines (up to 50,000RMB for companies) alongside other penalties in the form of social and tax credit rating deductions.
“The aim of the waste sorting regulations was to separate ‘wet’ (food) and ‘dry’ waste,” explains Alizée Buysschaert, the founder of Zero Waste Shanghai – a waste management consultancy that offers tailored training programmes to support F&B venues.
“Over 40% of the city’s waste is incinerated every day. When burning food and dry waste together, the incineration chimneys are burning at 1,200 degrees Celsius. Remove food waste from the equation and it drops to 800 degrees Celsius, which represents a 30% decrease in energy and also has an enormous impact on air pollution. Food waste can then be turned into either compost or biogas.”
Working in conjunction with waste sorting initiatives, at the beginning of the year Beijing also set targets for the catering and restaurant industry to reduce their single-use plastic consumption by 30% by the end of 2020, The Diplomat reports – including banning plastic utensils and non-biodegradable straws.
Buysschaert has noted: “More venues using recycled or compostable containers with the bare plastic minimum. Even though it’s still single use, and ends up in the same place – landfill, incineration or the oceans – I do believe it’s a first step in the long process of sustainability that will follow.”
On the ground
Over a year into this series of state introduced waste management campaigns, foodservice operators are feeling its impact. Sustainably minded Shanghai restaurateur Camden Hauge, who’s been running neighbourhood eateries across the city for five years, notes: “Although the trash sorting and collecting can be a bit more complicated for operations – for example, our kitchens aren’t designed for the quantity or size of cans, collection times are fixed and may be in the middle of service, etc. I’m happy we’re doing it from a sustainability perspective. Shanghai is so vast that we stand to make a huge difference.’
Furthermore, scrutiny over waste has given venues insight into how much and what type they’re creating. Managing partner of the el Willy Group, comprising restaurants el Willy, Tomatito and el Ocho in Shanghai, Koen Vessies explains: “We were already sorting as much as we could before regulations arrived,” the improved system has given “clear insight into how much plastic we were using.”
They’re now able to address the problem with more informed initiatives. Overall, Vessies believes they are now seeing reduced amounts of plastic in restaurants and supermarkets.
It’s not just Shanghai and other first-tier cities where foodservice operators are embracing the push for sustainable practices. In China’s southern island province of Hainan, the recently opened Sanya outpost of the luxury lifestyle hotel chain, 1 Hotel Haitang Bay has implemented waste sorting procedures for its F&B operations in line with local government regulations. Staff education across the venues is prioritised. ‘Front and back-of-house teams are trained in garbage categorising,’ explains director of culinary Pearl Woo. Ongoing awareness of regulations is something they monitor closely. To reduce overall food waste, they put emphasis on initiatives including calculating food requirements according to covers and using fruit and vegetable trimmings for things such as stocks, juices, and garnishes.
To the west, in Sichuan province, eco-conscious hotel Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain has been developing its waste management programme over the last few years. Alongside the usual initiatives (dividing waste, carefully calculating food preparation across its F&B outlets including the staff canteen, etc), they also “weigh the garbage every day, making records for comparison so we can easily [monitor and address] if big differences occur,” says a hotel spokesperson. Also, to keep up awareness, “a daily announcement board shows how we fare in terms of waste levels for the week, month and so on.”
Yet, despite these initiatives, Six Senses still faces challenges – one of which is a lack of consumer awareness. “Some guests take a lot of food at once to taste different flavours or for photos – the principle of take only what you can eat is yet to sink in with many.” In the longterm, they feel education will be key.
While changes are positive, many believe China’s battle with MSW is far from over. Nitin Dani, founder of Green Initiatives, a Shanghai-based non-profit organisation raising awareness about environmental issues, agrees that a number of foodservice operators have “started embracing greener practices.” He also notes waste sorting has allowed important insights “which means more data, and thus more tools, to deal with the issue [of food waste].” However, he finds challenges persist and solutions need to dig deeper.
Within the foodservice industry, “the major culprit of single-use plastics is in delivery/takeaway. This issue still hasn’t been dealt with. If we add a few drops of water to the sea the level does not rise. In the same way, some large online food takeaway companies introducing a handful of sustainable – often more expensive and not really consistently applied – packaging has barely had any effect.”
\Restaurateur Hauge also believes there’s a long way to go; although “forcing vendors to add the option of ‘no cutlery’ as a default on all of the delivery apps will be a minor sea change. China’s reliance on delivery generates excess packaging.” An issue further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, South China Morning Post reports the country’s already-thriving delivery services are experiencing higher demand, resulting in a deluge of plastic waste as people rely on delivery apps to avoid restaurants or shops.
Furthermore, Dani notes the influx of “food products coming from around the world [creates] more packaging, more expired products, more waste.”
For Vessies, although Tomatito sources locally where they can, the demand for foreign ingredients is one of the larger problems they and other operators face when it comes to adopting more sustainable practice. “China should start trusting their own ingredients, because many are top of their kind.”
But Covid-19 has also drawn attention to food waste – or as Dani calls it: “The pandemic that’s much less talked about.” In mid-August, Xi Jinping launched ‘operation empty plate’, calling on the public not to over order in restaurants and cut down waste amidst food security concerns in part triggered by the virus. “Now, more and more businesses are coming forward to tackle this problem,’ Dani says. “From [increasing] public awareness to smart behavioural changes, ways of reducing food waste on the customer side are all going to be important.”
With talk of additional regulations on the horizon, Zero Waste Shanghai’s Buysschaert also expects to see more waste reduction initiatives from venues moving forward. “In 2019, the amount of waste discarded didn’t really matter financially, but this is changing now. In the near future, [it’s expected that] companies and venues will be charged according to the amount of waste that leaves their facilities. And by then, tools to support them will either be suggested by the government, or startups will fill that need.”
While China’s battle with MSW is only beginning, increasing government-led initiatives alongside forward-thinking foodservice operators and social organisations pushing for change, should mean hope for a cleaner future.