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Is a “Zero Waste” Lifestyle Really Attainable After a Bubble-Wrapped Pandemic?

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Dai Jiaxin, a 30-year-old interior designer, broke with tradition and decided to forego visiting her elderly parents in Hunan during the most recent Chinese New Year holiday in February. Instead, she ordered an elaborate dinner for one from popular food delivery app Meituan, delivered to her Beijing apartment.

After being notified that her order had arrived, she donned a surgical mask and latex gloves to pick up her holiday meal from the masked delivery man in her apartment lobby. No customary New Year’s greetings were exchanged in the quick, wordless hand-off.

Back at her apartment, Dai began her personal, pandemic-era unboxing ritual. Keeping her gloves and mask on, she pulled three styrofoam packages out of the double plastic wrapped delivery bags and quickly wiped down each food carton’s exteriors with disposable hand wipes. She then threw away all the used hand wipes, the plastic delivery bags, her latex gloves, and face mask. She opted to use her own household chopsticks rather than the restaurant’s complementary pair, which she also threw away.

She then called her parents and extended family, who enthusiastically greeted each other over video chat between mouthfuls of similarly delivered, carefully-packaged foods.

“This has been my reality and will continue to be my life until I am vaccinated later this year,” she says. “I realize how much waste is accumulated for each meal I order, but I’m also grateful that the restaurants and delivery companies are doing their part to keep us, their customers, and their staff safe.”

Dai’s outlook mirrors the tentative post-pandemic hope for a return to normalcy shared by many across the country. However, a highly visible but hardly mentioned side effect of Covid is the ever-growing waste generated by the much needed safety measures taken to curb the virus’ growth.

Although the public will eventually be weaned off of disposable PPE, consumers might already be accustomed to and continue to demand the extra layers of packaging provided by restaurants and retailers during the pandemic.

At what point after the pandemic will the waste-driven environmental crisis take center stage in the public’s mind?

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Lockdowns and Takeout Boxes

When Covid-19 cases surged in China during the 2020 Lunar New Year holiday, the government responded quickly with lockdown measures. Online retailers and food delivery services had to adapt to government protocols and public sentiment by implementing safety precautions while experiencing record demand. Online platforms such as Meituan and Eleme introduced policies focused on accountability and infection prevention, such as temperature readings, increased packaging, and disposable PPE for staff.

The public and private sectors swiftly responded to the crisis by blanketing the nation with much-needed PPE in a concerted effort to halt the virus’s growth. Their preventative efforts paid off, albeit at the expense of generating a significant amount of waste. A study published in September 2020 showed that during the height of the pandemic, China went through almost a million face masks per day, marking the highest among 49 countries in Asia. The country also produced 333 tons of medical waste, which includes medical gowns, boots, masks and goggles, daily.

According to a study conducted in 2019 by Greenpeace East Asia, a non-governmental environmental organization based in Beijing, delivery services used an average of 3.27 containers per order. In August 2020, one of the world’s largest meal delivery services, Meituan Dianping, reported that they received about 40 million orders per day. Doing the math, the sheer amount of waste generated from takeout becomes hard to even fathom.

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Chinese workers sort out parcels, most of which are from Singles’ Day online shopping, at a distribution center in Jiangsu province in 2018 (source: ChinaImages via DepositImages)

The pandemic lockdown did, however, produce a silver lining from a waste management perspective. According to the environment ministry’s air quality management department, air quality in China improved so much during coronavirus-related lockdowns that the country beat its national standard for levels of harmful PM2.5 particulates, a key pollution indicator.

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With multiple domestic and international vaccines now available, a palpable hope is emerging for a post-pandemic future. However, zero waste advocates such as Qin Yuchen, who resides in the northeastern city Linyi in Shandong, wonder what a return to normalcy will mean for ongoing environmental efforts.

Envisioning a Zero Waste World

Prior to the pandemic, the fight against waste in China was generating momentum as the government launched multiple anti-waste and pro-recycling measures across the country.

Qin supports the top-down guidance, though adds:

“While the rubbish sorting campaign is a positive idea, it is hard for most people to follow through without supervision, especially when people’s priority is on their work and meeting basic needs now.”

The government initiatives were coupled with zero-waste organizations such as The Bulk House in Beijing and Zero Waste Shanghai amplifying the green message through grassroots organization.

While still committed to economic development, China has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint essential to the global fight against climate change. The country has publicly waged a war on waste and plastics — dubbed “white pollution” — with President Xi announcing last year China’s commitment to net-zero waste by 2060.

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A trash can with new waste classifications in Xi’an in 2019 (source: wittayayut via DepositImages)

This January, the government announced a complete ban on the use of plastic bags at supermarkets and retailers in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities by the end of the year. It also outlawed plastic straws at restaurants and aims for a 30% reduction of plastic container use by 2025.

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Eric Liu, senior toxics campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia, says that he has seen an increase in public awareness on the destructive effects of single-use products. “More people are realizing that products like plastic bags are not eco-friendly, and the zero-waste lifestyle as an alternative is becoming more relevant,” he says.

Taiwan native Erica Huang works with local farmers and food artisans to run the Beijing-based farmers’ market Farm to Neighbors. The market encourages customers to bring their own shopping bags and also works with recycling company Aobag to share a deposit of used and clean plastic products with patrons.

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Erica Huang outside a Farm to Neighbors stall in Beijing (courtesy Erica Huang)

She notes the positive public reception to the government mandates:

“It wasn’t hard for people to accept that shopping bags are not provided. People were already more aware of the fact that too much plastic waste is being produced. The law enforcement in Shanghai for every citizen to sort their garbage made a big impression on the public.”

The pandemic galvanized China’s public and private spheres to act quickly and in unison to confront the deadly coronavirus.

Now, advocates such as Liu, Qin, and Huang hope that this unified effort and urgency can be similarly applied to zero waste initiatives — despite the seemingly unstoppable trend of consumption and wasteful convenience.

Header image: Magda Ehlers via Pexels

Josephine Tee
    Brewed in Singapore and distilled in Beijing, Josephine (Jo) enjoys capturing experiences through quill or lens. Depending on the time of day, she is either powered by a strong blend of coffee or a stiffly-made cocktail. She likes cats and was one in a former life.