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    Urban Chinese Band Together to Save Money, Save the Planet

    Online communities like mini app Precious SH and Douban group “I Love About-to-Expire Food” are helping young people cut costs while adopting more sustainable habits.

    Are you a worldly, environmentally conscious person living in Shanghai and looking to foster sustainable habits? There’s an app for that.

    Precious SH, a mini program accessible within China’s everything-app WeChat, is a resource for people seeking to reduce waste and their carbon footprints. When users open it, they’re greeted with a map showing nearby stores that discount about-to-expire food and coffee shops that incentivize customers to bring their own cups, as well as local repair shops and secondhand markets.

    According to a 2020 report from SynTao, a consultancy specializing in environmental solutions for businesses, Chinese people aged 21 to 40 have the greatest awareness of sustainability. Among Precious SH’s more than 30,000 users, half of them are younger than 30, according to its founder, Lu Yuxin. She told Sixth Tone she designed the platform to help mitigate the current global environmental crisis, drawing inspiration from other anti-food waste apps like Too Good to Go.

    “Our target audience isn’t those who are already living sustainable lives — it’s those among the young generation who want to start making contributions to the environment but don’t know what they can do,” Lu said, adding that the app’s cat-themed interface design was a conscious choice to keep users from feeling too stressed-out by the prospect of trying to save the planet.

    The trend is spreading elsewhere in China, too. On social platform Douban, a group called “I Love About-to-Expire Food” has over 50,000 members sharing tips for reducing waste and saving money in their cities, including online shops that offer discounts on unsold food.

    Dela Huang, an MBA student living in Shanghai, is one of China’s growing number of young people who are pursuing more sustainable habits. She told Sixth Tone that whenever she goes to a grocery store, she’ll check the soon-to-expire section for any products she might need.

    However, living a sustainable life in China isn’t easy, she said, as most young professionals are too preoccupied with work, and local companies are typically slow to offer sustainable options to their customers.

    “You can’t expect people who are already super busy with work to cook their own meals every day and avoid ordering takeout,” said Huang, adding that businesses should try harder to adopt environmentally friendly policies. “For example, to avoid waste, takeout restaurants could offer meal options specifically designed for one person.”

    Zhang Hua, a 25-year-old resident of the eastern city of Hangzhou, echoed Huang’s sentiments. “Every time I choose the ‘no cutlery’ option when I order food (on a Chinese takeout app), the restaurant includes some anyway,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “It’s really frustrating — as if this option is just for the sake of appearances.”

    High efficiency and low cost have accelerated China’s food-delivery boom. Last year, the industry was valued at 650 billion yuan ($101 billion).

    But with heaps of orders come heaps of trash. In 2019, China accounted for more than one-quarter of all plastic produced worldwide. And according to state media reports published the same year, some 50 million delivery orders were being placed in the country each day, producing enough plastic to occupy an estimated 3 million square meters, or around 420 soccer fields — again, that’s per day.

    As for other forms of waste, last December the National People’s Congress introduced a new anti-food waste draft law in response to a call from President Xi Jinping. It proposed banning online binge-eating videos — a niche but increasingly popular genre known as mukbang — and requiring food-ordering apps to remind customers not to waste food, among other measures.

    Contributions: Wang Jiaqi; editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: People shop in the “about-to-expire” section of a supermarket in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Feb. 14, 2021. People Visual)