Refusing Waste in China

Refusing single-use products –straws, bags, bottles, cellophane, food boxes, paper napkins, paper/plastic cups, plastic cutlery, wrapped up goods- poses a couple of complications everywhere. I dodge the problem by shopping 95% of the time at the farmers market, where people know me and my motivations; the other 5% require a bit more patience, repetition and serenity, even in the face of failure. If I try a new café and forget to mention that I don’t want a straw for example, I’ll try hard not to twist my face into a semi-apocalypse (aided by Riley’s sympathetic smile).

Urban farm, Haishu district
Garbage heap in an urban farm, Haishu district.

Challenges are ubiquitous, because the idea of REFUSING superfluous packaging and bringing your own is still unheard of in most places. It’s very, very, very easy for me to get frustrated in the face of all this waste that could be, oh so simply, avoided. I blame that on spending too much time with people sharing most of my ideas, and sometimes forgetting that individuals have different worries, priorities, standards and sources of information. Here enters a wide kaleidoscope of reactions.

At a farmers market in France, a cheese saleswoman couldn’t understand my desperate request to put a chunk of Taleggio in a Tupperware; I gave up under her look of puzzled annoyance. A few minutes later, a lady in her fifties selling flowers groaned “Oh c’est dégueulasse! » (that’s gross!) when I gracefully declined the bag to put our new pot of flowers in, at the risk of dropping a few specks of dirt in the car. The part when she added “Mes enfants sont comme vous, tiens!” (my children are just like you!) cheered me up, a little.

My trip in Chicago, for all its amazingness in hundreds of aspects, revealed to me an unfathomable amount of wrapping that was stained, greased, folded, unfolded and disposed of indiscriminately –Styrofoam… how does the number one world power still use Styrofoam for… almost everything?!-. Trader Joe’s, especially, almost exclusively sold packaged goods, including fruit and vegetables.

In China, interestingly, I never receive scorn or exasperation for what I do. Many people think it’s a Western thing that they should learn from -to my embarrassment, when I think of the trash bags dumped in my charming Normandy woods- and praise the gesture. At the market, some are perplexed when I pull out my containers of different shapes, ages, and materials, then laugh light-heartedly as I explain my reasons, as if they had solved a riddle with a surprisingly simple answer

Most are extremely busy: seven days of work per week, twelve to fourteen hours per day. Therefore although they approve of the idea, reducing waste, especially plastic waste, is something that they would hardly have time to consider. Plastic bags are versatile, cheap, light, and waterproof; they are taken for granted by customers, who’ll go as far as getting a single bulb of garlic or a cucumber wrapped up, perhaps for hygiene, mostly by the force of habit.

Oil bottles
Bottles on a cushion, inside a box, inside a bag (blame the poor quality on the phone).

It’s the universal reflex: you arrive at a stand, the salesman/woman pulls out a bag for you. You want to buy two bottles of oil, they come in triple packaging. A micro-bottle of essential oil? Plastic wrapping, box, box inside the box, a leg-length list of other oils and a paper cushion. Candies? A plastic bag, filled with small plastic bags, filled with candies each wrapped in plastic.

There have been attempts to stem this flow that contributes around one third of all the plastic ending up in the ocean[1]. Free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 mm thick have been officially forbidden since 2008 to mitigate the country’s then-daily use of 3 billion a day[2]. In supermarkets, most people will sometimes use their own bag or buy a slightly sturdier one, at a price that is still too low –a couple of cents- to dissuade the purchase.

Boat on a river
Garbage floating on a canal in Zhenhai.

Farmers’ markets and street vendors overwhelmingly rely on single-use bags, despite the 10 000 rmb (1500 euros) fine they could theoretically face if caught by the authorities. I’ve never seen anyone receive so much as an admonishment for littering, however. Though fines, some of them considerable, are given, they remain marginal, as can be seen through the example of excessive car exhaust emissions, with only 10 000 vehicles fined[3] out of a fleet of over 170 million[4] in 2016.

Therefore, even if people occasionally hear of a factory closing or of a notorious arrest, they do not have a tough enough incentive, or the time, to question their habits. Something all of us poor humans struggle with.

There lies the trickiest part, when it comes to reducing waste: considering, carefully, who you are speaking to, explaining your reasons, without offending or judging, and hoping for a slight change of behavior. Most of the time, nothing happens and you just have to let it go. Yup, even when your 14 year-old students, who participated very eagerly to your epic environmental-topic lesson, show up the following week with thirty plastic bags filled with thirty packs of chips and thirty soda bottles at 9:30 a.m. Merry Christmas teacher! (Breathe and focus on your new PPT…)

I will admit I have already lost my nerve a little and told people off for littering. Oddly, they often apologize, pick it up and seem surprised, maybe because there’s always someone to clean that up, or because what happens to the public space doesn’t usually concern individuals very much. There are a lot of reasons that could explain why my irritated reaction would take them off guard. Why apologize to me though? This is your city, everyone’s city.

consume less enjoy more

CCP’s now four year-old “harmonious society” campaign and other posters promoting a greener Ningbo cover most construction sites and public transportation hubs in town, painting immaculate skies atop emerald paths. Reality needs yet to catch up with ambition: although the municipality has significantly incorporated trees, gardens and recyclable bins (the latter with very debatable efficiency) to the landscape, heaps of rubbish still rise here and there. On the outskirts, where garbage disposal trucks barely circulate, and where builders simply drop their litter to the ground -for lack of a better option-, the problem has run out of control. Burning your trash is still the cleanest solution out there. Never do I feel the insignificance of my actions as mercilessly as when I venture far from the center.

Nonetheless, once in a while, there’ll be a friend who starts composting veggie scraps. Another who ditches the disposable food containers and brings his or her own steel ones. The ones who start using the steel flask for water. The student who discreetly asks me during break how to use a menstrual cup -featured for a second in a video I showed[5]– because she finds the idea phenomenal; I just advised her to browse it on Wikihow, my personal goldmine.

Living in China doesn’t make it easier or harder to justify your waste-reduction lifestyle. I would actually say that being an outsider gives you an excuse for your unusual habits, therefore people will respect you and sometimes try to learn from you, ironically assuming you are the norm in your country. It has made me reflect on my own reactions to people who lead different lifestyles from mine. Unless I feel offended or wronged, I try not to judge individuals through my prism; I hear them out, we share our views, and sometimes I take a piece of them with me.

[1] Li Jing, “China Produces Around a Third of Plastic Waste Polluting the World’s Ocean, Says Report”, South China Morning Post, 14 February 2015, http://www.scmp.com/article/1711744/china-produces-about-third-plastic-waste-polluting-worlds-oceans-says-report, found 19 March 2017.

[2] Ben Block, “China Reports 66% Drop in Plastic Bag Use”, Worldwatch Institute, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6167, found 19 March 2017.

[3] “China Detains 720, imposes 21.8 million of Fines in Pollution Crackdown”, Reuters, 11 January 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/r-china-detains-720-imposes-218-million-of-fines-in-pollution-crackdown-media-2017-1, found 19 March 2017.

[4] “Vehicle Population in China from 2007 to 2015 (in millions)”, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/285306/number-of-car-owners-in-china/, found 19 March 2017.

[5] Seeker Stories, “You Can Live Without Producing Trash”, Youtube, 9 April 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYDQcBQUDpw, found 20 March 2017.

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