Food waste and food security are intertwined. As climate change, the pandemic, and global insecurity destabilize supplies of agricultural staples like wheat and rice, it’s no surprise concerns about food waste are on the rise.
For the Chinese government, which treats food security as a matter of national security, these concerns are acutely felt. China’s food service industry alone accounted for 17 to 18 million tons of food waste in 2018 — enough to feed between 30 and 50 million people a year, according to a Chinese Academy of Science report. At home, kitchen waste accounts for as much as 60% to 70% of all household waste.
To address this issue and bring food waste to more sustainable levels, China passed an “Anti-Food Waste Law” in 2020. The law included provisions mandating governments at all levels monitor and evaluate sources of food waste and allowing restaurants to take practical measures, like charging customers a disposal fee for unfinished food.
For the most part, however, the Chinese state treats food waste first and foremost as a moral or ideological failing. Its primary goal is to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility for food waste. To a degree, this has been effective; much of the public, and especially students, have an entrenched sense of guilt regarding wasting food. But it also overlooks an important fact: efforts to cultivate an anti-waste mindset have not kept up with changing dining practices. For instance, in communal dining rooms and other settings where shame and guilt can be leveraged effectively, waste might be minimal, but what happens as the country’s dining habits tilt toward private meals and delivery services?
To understand how different settings affect the consumption and waste habits of young Chinese, my research team conducted fieldwork at two universities in the southern city of Shenzhen. We found that dining in communal campus canteens passively reduces waste. Outside of the canteens, however, waste remains a serious problem — in part because students do not always recognize throwing away delivery food as food waste.
On university campuses, there are three major channels for obtaining food: canteens, private delivery apps like Ele.me, and school-operated campus delivery services. Waste at canteens is relatively low. Individual cafeteria vendors enjoy relatively stable sales, allowing them to predict the amount of food they need to prepare each day. On the other side of the counter, students are often uncomfortable throwing away food under the watchful gaze of cafeteria employees, which discourages them from ordering more than they can eat. (Our own attempts to capture wasted food on film for our research may have played a role here, as they seemingly encouraged interviewees to finish their leftovers.)
The face-to-face nature of canteen dining sales and the familiarity between students and vendors are also factors, giving students the flexibility to adjust their orders as needed by ordering less rice or smaller portions. This naturally results in less food waste at the end of the meal.
Compare that with student attitudes toward the other major channels of food on campus: external and school-operated delivery services. At canteens, students tend to feel guilty about wasting food. Food deliveries, on the other hand, aren’t really seen as food at all, but as a consumer good. Many interviewees reported that wasted deliveries felt more like a financial loss than a moral failing. Any waste was not because they failed to order properly, but because the product did not meet their personal needs.
Take rice, for example. Restaurants frequently package delivery meals with extra grains. From their perspective, this is more efficient than trying to tailor servings to individual consumers. Students, who didn’t ask for the extra portion, do not see any resulting waste as their fault.
Another difference between food deliveries and canteens is that the former can be ordered at any time, and for any reason. Unlike the canteen, which is associated with formal “meals,” food deliveries are often treated as a convenience. But this means that, if a student suddenly has a change of plans and has to abandon their delivery order, they don’t view this as wasting food. In the words of one of our research participants, “These (wasted deliveries) cannot be considered food waste, as they don’t occur during mealtime and aren’t something we can control.”
The problems with delivery services are not limited to the actual act of throwing away food, but also extend to how leftover food is processed. Despite China’s efforts to promote waste sorting, delivery leftovers are often thrown out with regular garbage, rather than composted. This stands in contrast to the well-established food waste disposal systems in place at school cafeterias.
Different food channels result in varying degrees of waste. Although efforts to instill an aversion to food waste have been successful in China, they are often predicated on an outdated ideal of communal dining. Instead of cultivating personal morality-based discipline, more emphasis needs to be placed on alerting diners to the various forms waste takes and encouraging people to be more active in recycling food. Expanded composting programs, for example, would give people a better sense of how much food waste they generated and potentially encourage them to change their consumption habits.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Students have lunch at a university canteen in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous region, Feb. 24, 2022. VCG)