Five years ago, a Chinese office worker’s lunchtime routine looked the same as it had for decades. At 11.30 a.m., staff would troop out the door to the in-house cafeteria or the nearest noodle shop. But then came the internet.
China’s biggest online food delivery startup, Ele.me, tells Sixth Tone that on any given day the web platform processes 5 million delivery orders across a thousand Chinese cities. And according to market analysis company iResearch, just under two-thirds of these orders are placed around lunchtime.
Ele.me and its two main rivals, Meituan Waimai and Baidu Waimai, are predicted by iResearch to have explosive growth in the next three years, as the food delivery market triples in size. (“Waimai” means takeout in Chinese.) But as low-impact food consumption becomes a thing of the past among China’s white-collar workers, the piles of takeout food garbage are growing fast, with no clear plan for how to manage them.
According to the China Statistical Yearbook 2014, in the decade leading up to 2013, China’s cities produced 10 percent more solid waste each year, leading to 172 million tons in 2013, or approximately 13 percent of the world’s total waste.
The warning signs for China’s environmental degradation are already visible. At the end of 2015, a Chinese researcher discovered that locally made sea salt contained tiny particles of plastic because the waterways were so clogged with waste. Then in July this year, clouds of plastic waste blew onto beaches around Hong Kong.
“The popularity of food delivery services has ushered in a new lifestyle that we believe is awful for the environment,” Mao Da, a senior researcher with the Beijing-based activist group Rock Environment and Energy Institute, tells Sixth Tone. “Both policymakers and environmental groups have been slow to realize this is a serious problem in the making.” According to Mao, officials intend to manage increasing levels of consumer waste by creating more landfill sites and building more incinerators.
Yet China’s municipal governments have poor records when it comes to managing their waste facilities. In January, an industrial waste landfill site in Shenzhen collapsed, killing 12 people and leaving another 62 missing but presumed dead. Then in June, Caixin reported on the rise of unregulated landfill sites filled with untreated piles of urban waste around Beijing, which experts fear are contaminating the soil, water, and air.
Workers clean Nim Shue Wan beach at Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. Environmentalists claim trash is washed ashore from mainland China, July 8, 2016. Bobby Yip/VCG
Despite these hints of an environmental crisis in the making, the convenience of on-demand food delivery for busy city workers means there’s little incentive for consumers to change their behavior.
Sunny Hu, in her mid-20s, says she’d rather go without lunch than stand in a long line to buy food. She works at human resources company Antal International in central Shanghai. “I’ve lived this way since I graduated three years ago,” she tells Sixth Tone. “Most of my team do the same.”
Historically, China’s cities have relied upon an army of waste-pickers to help ensure that urban waste is collected and recycled. These local workers scour the streets alongside municipal waste trucks, searching through garbage containers to find items that can be sold to recycling depots. Yet a sharp drop in global commodity prices in recent years saw prices for recyclable materials such as plastic tumble.
In addition, a decline in oil prices has made new plastic as cheap as its recycled counterpart, explains Adam Minter, author of “Junkyard Planet.” “Quite simply, for waste pickers, there are better ways to make a living now,” he says. Minter adds that waste depots have been pushed out to the edge of cities by municipal officials because local residents prefer not to have them — or smell them — on their doorsteps. “If the plastic you have is now of lower value, and you have to bike 45 minutes to take it to a waste transfer station, you’re not going to do it,” he says.
Steve Wong, executive president of the China Scrap Plastics Association, tells Sixth Tone that although the subject of increasing levels of food packaging waste is a hot topic of conversation among China’s central government regulators, there have so far been no concrete proposals. “The problem is, there’s literally no incentive for people to collect EPS right now,” he explains, using the acronym for expanded polystyrene, the most common material used in the manufacture of food containers.
Three years ago, Chinese companies were banned from using the material sometimes referred to as “white pollution,” until intense government lobbying reportedly encouraged the central government to change its policy. With the lifting of the ban in 2013 came a pledge to recycle all the resulting plastic material, but that hasn’t happened. “The lobbyists for corporate vested interests beat us,” Mao says. “The government assured the public that foam plastics would be recycled,” he adds, “but who’s there to do it?”
A Chinese laborer in Dong Xiao Kou village, near Beijing, loads a grinding machine with plastics to be recycled, Dec. 15, 2014. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG
Although the price of commodities has dropped, there is still money to be made from processing waste into usable material. However, China’s scrap plastic recycling industry, which processes more than half of the world’s scrap plastic, refuses to accept its own domestic waste due to its poor quality. Scrap plastic companies prefer to process clean, properly classified waste material, which results in a better-quality product to sell, says Wong.
Lucy Shen, procurement manager for the Shandong Intco Recycling Resources Co. Ltd., tells Sixth Tone her Shanghai-based company runs one of world’s largest recycling plants for EPS waste. However, Intco will not accept waste from inside China. Instead, the company buys 50,000 tons of scrap supplies from abroad each year.
“China is extremely underdeveloped in terms of [garbage] classification and recycling,” Shen says. “That has forced us to import all of our scrap supplies. At some point in future, we might source some of our scrap suppliers from China, but this will never account for the majority of our supply.” Intco’s approach has been criticized by environmental officials. But without regulatory intervention, Shen says things can’t change.
A section of compressed scrap plastics, with samples of the final products in the background, at the Shandong Intco Recycling Resources Co., Ltd., Sept. 14, 2016. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone
In 2000, the central government launched a pilot program in eight cities to encourage the classification of waste, but Mao says the project was not effectively rolled out or supervised.
In June this year, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development conducted a public consultation on the introduction of compulsory garbage classification, which finished at the end of June. But there have been no announcements yet regarding a forthcoming policy.
Experts point out there are too many government departments currently involved in China’s waste management system to make change easy, or even possible. Landfill sites and incinerators are built by the city’s construction department, run by the sanitation department, and overseen by the environmental department. “This complicated structure makes it hard for government officials to change how things are done,” Mao says. “Much harder than it would be to apply pressure to the private sector.”
Peggy Liu, chair of JUCCCE, a nonprofit eco-consultancy, believes the government must get help from companies such as Ele.me and Baidu, making them responsible for picking up and recycling packaging after it has been used. “This needs to become a circular economic model,” she says.
Yet despite the gloomy picture, some local governments are experimenting with new incentive programs to breathe life back into the recycling sector. Last year, Guangzhou launched a subsidized waste management program to encourage the recycling of scrap glass, wood, and plastics. The city government spent 7.3 million yuan on subsidies for trash collection and a public awareness campaign, and recycled an additional 220,000 tons of garbage that year. Nearby Shenzhen, on the other hand, employed its city management officers, or chengguan, with the task of encouraging citizens to sort their trash properly so it could be more effectively recycled.
In China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), the central government stressed the need to improve the country’s recycling and waste classification systems, and underlined the importance of new legislation, public campaigns, and monetary incentives for effecting systemic change.
(Header image: A woman holds a polystyrene food container at a restaurant in Anyang, Henan province, May 2, 2013. Chang Zhongzheng/VCG)