China’s zero-waste activists fight overconsumption

Carrie Yu, founder of zero-waste shop The Bulk House, places eggs into her personal re-usable egg carton. Increasing numbers of Chinese people are embracing a life of recycling and sustainability, as the country comes to terms with the scale of pollution caused by years of consumerism and growth. (AFP)
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Updated 22 January 2020

China’s zero-waste activists fight overconsumption

  • From central government to major corporations, pressure to produce re-usable goods and packaging is growing

BEIJING: Parcel piles at sorting centers and drivers speeding to deliver takeout are normal sights in urban China, where e-commerce and delivery apps thrive.

But the embrace of consumerism will generate as much as 500 million tons of waste annually by 2030, says the World Bank.

There are signs of a fightback — this week the government announced bans on plastic bags in cities and single-use straws from restaurants from this year.

The zero-waste movement is also grabbing public attention.

“Everything is wrapped with plastic, because it’s convenient, but the cost is tremendous,” said Carrie Yu, who committed to “zero-waste” living in 2016.

By recycling, repurposing and composting their garbage, Yu and her British partner Joe Harvey can fit three months of household waste into just two jars. Nearly every object in their apartment was selected with low environmental impact in mind.

A cardboard egg carton will be reused multiple times. Cloth make-up remover pads hang to dry after washing. Many of Yu’s clothes are second-hand or refashioned.

She buys unpackaged groceries, and makes sure to avoid restaurants that use disposable chopsticks.

GoZeroWaste, an organization set up by Beijing-based activist Elsa Tang, has members in 19 cities across China who meet to swap unwanted items and exchange tips.

“If we make more responsible choices, we’re being responsible for our lives, our health, and the environment,” Tang said.

For decades, Chinese people lived in a planned economy where everyday goods were rationed. Some aspects of zero-waste living, then, are familiar to older people.

It used to be common for merchants in the country to require packaging deposits for goods like yogurt, said Mao Da, an environmental history professor at Beijing Normal University.

“We used to think frugality was a glorious tradition,” Mao told AFP.

In the past, people would catch fish from the rivers and lakes near her village, but “you can see the pristine water right now just full of rubbish,” explained Yu, who grew up in rural Hubei province.

Growing incomes and the rise of delivery apps like Taobao have put impulse shopping and next-day delivery within  reach of millions.

Young people who moved away to cities “just bring so many things with packaging” whenever they return to visit, the 28-year-old said.

China produced 210 million tons of waste in 2017, according to World Bank data, lower than the US’s 258 million but expected to jump as incomes grow.

Efforts to tackle consumer waste are “slowly becoming mainstream” in China, Mao said.

Shanghai launched an ambitious garbage separation and recycling program in July, requiring residents to sort their own trash or risk fines. Beijing is set to follow.

In a document released Sunday, the government said production and sale of disposable polystyrene and plastic tableware would be banned by the end of the year.

The plan also outlaws single-use straws in the food and beverage industry this year, while disposable plastic should not be “actively provided” by hotels by 2022.

Corporations are also taking note. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba said last year it would make its annual Singles Day shopping festival “green” and set up 75,000 packaging recycling points in the country. Over 2.3 billion parcels were shipped in the aftermath of last year’s Singles Day.

But big corporations tend to prefer  promoting recycling to reducing consumption. “We must contain the total volume of the material being consumed,” Mao said.

Yu and Harvey are keen to encourage others to try their way of life and have launched The Bulk House, an online store that sells alternatives to single-use products including biodegradable tape and washable menstrual pads.

Yu, who made the change after a difficult move forced her to part with most of her belongings and confront her shopping habit, feels the “zero-waste” approach is good for people as well as the planet.

She explained: “I just feel so much lighter.”


Oil-rich wealth funds seen shedding up to $225 billion in stocks

Updated 30 March 2020

Oil-rich wealth funds seen shedding up to $225 billion in stocks

  • Risking more losses is not an option for some funds from oil-producing nations

LONDON: Sovereign wealth funds from oil-producing countries mainly in the Middle East and Africa are on course to dump up to $225 billion in equities, a senior banker estimates, as plummeting oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic hit state finances.

The rapid spread of the virus has ravaged the global economy, sending markets into a tailspin and costing both oil and non-oil based sovereign wealth funds around $1 trillion in equity losses, according to JPMorgan strategist Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou.

His estimates are based on data from sovereign wealth funds and figures from the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, a research group.

Sticking with equity investments and risking more losses is not an option for some funds from oil-producing nations. Their governments are facing a financial double-whammy — falling revenues due to the spiraling oil price and rocketing spending as administrations rush out emergency budgets.

Around $100-$150 billion in stocks have likely been offloaded by oil-producer sovereign wealth funds, excluding Norway’s fund, in recent weeks, Panigirtzoglou said, and a further $50-$75 billion will likely be sold in the coming months.

“It makes sense for sovereign funds to frontload their selling, as you don’t want to be selling your assets at a later stage when it is more likely to have distressed valuations,” he said.

Most oil-based funds are required to keep substantial cash-buffers in place in case a collapse in oil prices triggers a request from the government for funding.

A source at an oil-based sovereign fund said it had been gradually raising its liquidity position since oil prices began drifting lower from their most recent peak above $70 a barrel in October 2018.

In addition to the cash reserves, additional liquidity was typically drawn firstly from short-term money market instruments like treasury bills and then from passively invested equity as a last resort, the source said.

It’s generally a similar trend for other funds.

“Our investor flows broadly show more resilience than market pricing would suggest,” said Elliot Hentov, head of policy research at State Street Global Advisers. “There has been a shift toward cash since the crisis started, but it’s not a panic move but rather gradual.”

The sovereign fund source said the fund had made adjustments to its actively managed equity investments due to the market rout, both to stem losses and position for the recovery, when it comes.

Exactly how much sovereign wealth funds invest and with whom remain undisclosed. Many don’t even report the value of the assets they manage.

On Thursday, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund said it had lost $124 billion so far this year as equity markets sunk but its outgoing CEO Yngve Slyngstad said it would, at some point, start buying stocks to get its portfolio back to its target equity allocation of 70 percent from 65 percent currently.

Slyngstad also said that any fiscal spending by the government this year would be financed by selling bonds in its portfolio.