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.”