Food waste is a massive problem all across the world. There are plenty of articles online about how the food wasted by X amount of people could feed a million people for X amount of time. Even in the UK, it’s not just the food we don’t eat on our plate, the food that’s not eaten and goes rotten in cupboards and fridges, restaurants serving big portions that people are unable to finish and supermarkets binning food close to or dead on it’s sell-by date.
So what’s the food waste like in China? When you first come to China, you probably think there’s a lot of food waste, and there definitely is. Even after the hard times during the Cultural Revolution, where famine victims were forced to eat mud named after the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion and Mercy [观音土], it seems modern Chinese society are very much set in the habit of wasting food.
At many average restaurants (the ones I regularly eat at) and in the canteen, you will often see the ‘slop bucket’ of leftovers, and in the canteen you are expected to clear away your own leftovers into the communal bin.
At meals out, with friends or colleagues, there inevitably be food left over. As, in China, sociable meals are ate around a round table, where each person takes as much or little as they want from the middle and puts it in their own bowl, there’s no way to pinpoint who’s to blame for the wasted food. When I asked a Chinese friend his opinion on food waste, he said that none of the food gets wasted, as it will be collected in buckets and given to pigs and cows to eat, therefore it is all recycled in the food chain. But I don’t know how true that is, since one time I saw a worker lift up a paving slab on campus and pour a slop bucket into a hole in the ground…I don’t know how deep the hole was, but there was certainly a lot of wasted food down there.
On the other hand, does China waste less food than us civilised Westerners do? When we go to the fridges in the supermarket to buy meat, we find nicely sliced chicken breasts, a “whole” chicken (with no head and no insides) and all of these other nicely packaged good, hassle free cuts of meat. In China however, in the supermarket you can find the heads of animals, which are often a speciality. Chinese people eat chicken hearts, chicken feet, gizzard, liver etc. They must be shocked when they shop in the UK and discover a ‘whole chicken’ doesn’t include the feet. I wonder how Tesco would respond to that query.
So in this sense, they really make the most out of each animal that is killed for human consumption.
On a similar note, at fruit stalls, you will often have different prices for the same fruit, depending on how it looks. Red apples may be 5rmb/500g, but the ones that have bruises, are a weird shape or are already turning yellow are sold for 3rmb/500g. Sure these cheap apples may increase your risk of being ill, especially if you have a sensitive stomach, but it’s something that may prevent them getting thrown away or left to rot. I buy plenty of 3rmb apples and touch wood haven’t been ill.
In China, I think the food waste problem is much more visual than in the UK, where things are taken away to the kitchen before being scraped into a bin or supermarkets empty their ‘gone off’ food in big waste containers in the dead of night, whereas in China, you may be sitting opposite the slop bucket or see a big pile of rotting fruit on the street.
I think both countries acknowledge that this is a problem, but it’s not a priority at the moment. How many British households separate food waste, use a composter or make a conscious effort to cut down on food waste? Not enough, as I’m certain we are all guilty of seeing the first dots on a slice of bread, seeing one yoghurt is out of date and or seeing one cherry tomato go furry before chucking the whole lot out into the regular bin.
Back to China, there are signs in the canteen persuading students not to be leftover boys and girls* and I think it is part of the Civilised Society vision that Xi Jinping has for China, but while servings are too big, and all people are unaware of the scale of wasted food, we will still nervously pour the remains of our dinner into the slop bucket, hoping that there’s no splashback.
*This is a pun on a modern day saying 剩女， which is a person over 30 years old who is unmarried