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

By Wanqing Zhou, originally published on the Brighter Green website on February 7, 2013

Continued from Part I: 

The Leftovers: Consuming and Emitting
Nutrition that could save people from hunger is not the only thing being carelessly wasted; the already scarce natural resources used to grow the food, such as land and fresh water are also wasted. In addition, conventional landfill practices release greenhouse gases (GHGs) and other harmful chemicals due to microbial fermentation of the food waste, which is rich in organic matter and often wet. 

When dumping animal-based foods like beef, the impact on climate is triple that of plant-based foods because of animal protein’s higher emissions intensity. This fact does not even include the wasted resources and related sewage discharge, which destroy the planet’s ecosystems in the production process of animal-based foods. 

When people are lifted off the ground and put into skyscrapers, life becomes more convenient as the distance from the soil grows. However, because of this removal, we need to remind ourselves of these inconvenient truths behind our industrialized food systems. Action is still required on our part to complete the system, using mechanisms such as food scraps recycling.

As one of the first national pilots, Beijing implemented garbage sorting in 2000. In March, 2012, the Beijing Municipal Garbage Management Ordinance came into force, which encouraged communities and households to participate in kitchen waste recycling. 

Unfortunately, like many other environment-related tasks, this one is also thorny. According to official statistics, by 2011, 50% of municipal garbage was sorted enough for recycling. However, a study carried out by Tsinghua University revealed that, for the same year, only 4.4% of sampled communities met the standard. Some people say the short is all about incentives, but is that so?

The answer: not necessarily. The pathway linking the household recycling bin and the eventual treatment system is not primed, nor is the handling capacity strong enough. Every day, in Beijing alone, households generate 11,000 metric tons of kitchen waste, and restaurants generate 2,500 metric tons. But the four municipal kitchen waste management facilities altogether can only handle 1200 metric tons each day – that is less than 10% of what’s needed. As a result, in a large amount of communities, recycling bin contents head to the same destination as other waste – landfills or incineration plants.

Despite this, however, there are still residents who choose to add another container in the kitchen, for food scraps only, even knowing the collector will possibly mix them with other trash. The will is there, calling for a real system that flows and circles, equipped with both regulation and education.

Get the Cycle Turning

Under double pressure from resource scarcity and climate change, our planet needs to get the consumption pattern fixed and the recycle system running. Improving the existing methodology is not enough; various innovative ideas should be tried out at the same time. 

On the consumption side, reducing food waste is quite simple (see tips from Worldwatch Institute here and here), however, education needs to be strengthened. Food businesses like restaurants and grocery stores also have the responsibility and incentive to minimize food waste and should guide customers to do so as well. A food bank is yet to be introduced to Mainland China, but given the country’s issues with food waste and income inequality in cities, the idea definitely deserves attention from local communities and NGOs.

New York City is showcasing a practical method for collecting food scraps. At Greenmarkets, people voluntarily drop off their food scraps at composting sites. Not everyone participates, but 450 metric tons (1 million pounds) of food scraps have been recycled since 2007 through Greenmarkets alone. In China, wet markets are already part of many people’s daily life. Therefore, it is easy to imagine a similar circle, in which citizens bring their kitchen waste to the markets once a week, take fresh produces back home, and continue the cycle the next week. 

Also, for a sprawling city like Beijing, localized food scrap collection would greatly reduce the harmful emissions produced during transporting of food scraps. The Xicheng District is going to push on-site treatment in 2013, starting with collection from large canteens and restaurants. If planned well, nearby green spaces can also benefit from the organic fertilizers generated. This would have the added bonus of education, as citizens could see the benefits of their food scrap collection in their communities. 

Perhaps another feedback loop sits in there, too. When people start giving wasted food a second look by sorting out garbage or storing food scraps for compost, a voice in the head may remind us to clean our plates whenever possible. After all, we, as part of the planet, can’t afford the loss. 

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