From famine to food waste: time to reflect

Beijing is starting localised food waste schemes as China looks to tackle food scarcity and rubbish disposal
As a major producer and consumer of agricultural products on the planet, China faces a serious problem of food waste as it takes off towards sustainable urbanisation and industrialisation. In order to mend the cycle of food, it is critical for all groups in society to recognise the issue in an environmental context, and face the challenge collaboratively.
Released two months ago, Back to 1942, a film telling the story of a famine in Henan Province during World War II, spurred discussion about the Great Famine in the early 1960s, one of the post effects of the Great Leap Forward that still affects the food consumption psyche of the average Chinese. The Great Famine encouraged the world to analyse China’s food security, as outlined in Lester Brown’s 1995 book Who Will Feed China?
Ironically, in a university cafeteria in Beijing, one can see students throwing away about one third of their food. “That’s normal,” said one student, “we seldom pack up leftovers. If nobody asks, I won’t ask. And it’s inconvenient because we don’t have a microwave oven in our dorm to reheat it.” 
Then why order more than enough? “Well, it looks good to have at least the same number of dishes as the number of people. Common sense, isn’t it?” This is an example of what has become an underlying problem: the desire to appear abundant. This problem leads to extensive waste when the bill is paid with public funds. 
This problem shines a light on the lack of basic components in the education system – knowledge about Planet Earth. When dumping food becomes so easy for young people, it is extremely difficult for any society to step into sustainability.

Mountains of food waste


The facts about food waste might be more disturbing than one could imagine. Recently, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers released a report on food waste, estimating that 30-50% of annual global food production is wasted. The astonishing result covers food lost during harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as that thrown away by retailers and consumers. 

Read also: why half the food produced never reaches our stomachs

In China, about 70% of national waste is food, and food makes up 61% of household waste. Researchers from China Agricultural University studied data from 2006 to 2008 and found that edible food thrown away from restaurants each year is equivalent to nearly 10% of the country’s annual crop production, which is enough to feed 200 million people. When including the waste from schools, businesses and households, the number can easily reach 300 million people. 
In response to these numbers, a Clean Plate Initiative is heating up the social networks right now, advocating zero food waste when dining out. As the movement has spread, an increasing number of netizens, including familiar faces and food businesses, have joined in. More and more people have become aware of the issue and are acting. Good news and good timing, given the Chinese Spring Festival is the biggest feast of the year.
Yet the story does not end at dining tables. To complete the cycle of nature, what grows from the soil needs to return to the soil, regardless of the pathway.
Recycling and food waste
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 industrialised 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 shortfall is all about incentives, but is that so?
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 tonnes of kitchen waste, and restaurants generate 2,500 tonnes. But the four municipal kitchen waste management facilities altogether can only handle 1,200 tonnes 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, 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.
Ideas from Beijing and New York
Under double pressure from resource scarcity and climate change, our planet needs to get the consumption pattern fixed and the recycling 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, but education needs to be strengthened. Food businesses like restaurants and grocery stores also have the responsibility and incentive to minimise 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 tonnes (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 lives. 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, localised food scrap collection would greatly reduce the harmful emissions produced during transporting of food scraps. The city’s 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 fertilisers generated. This would have the added bonus of education, as citizens could see the benefits of food scrap collection in their communities. 

Perhaps there’s another feedback loop 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. 

This is a guest post from Wanqing Zhou, a research Intern at Worldwatch Institute. The blog first appeared on Brighter Green.