, - Posted on March 01, 2024

Igniting a Reuse Revolution in China’s War Against Plastic Waste

China has rapidly moved to address escalating food and beverage packaging waste, including the 2018 ban on importing plastic recyclables, the implementation of extensive urban waste sorting pilots, and the 2022 prohibition of non-biodegradable single-use plastics. But China’s plastic mountains are still growing.

Danning Lu
A woman holding a single-use coffee cup on her right hand and a glass of milk on her left hand.
Header Photo Credit: Courtesy of myboys.me /shutterstock

While exerting bans is a great strategy to reduce plastic waste, they are hard to enforce without effective alternative packaging. It is time for a reuse revolution with innovative companies, NGOs, and consumers hacking a scalable reusable food and beverage packaging system.

Food takeaway has become a symbol of urban lifestyle convenience in China, but the resulting single-use plastic (SUP) waste has become a costly environmental and economic burden. In 2020, urbanites ordering on food delivery apps generated 37 billion SUP containers and a small fraction was recycled. According to a report by Pacific Environment, 88.5% of SUP waste in China is landfilled, incinerated, or leaked to the environment. Food and beverage packaging is the number one contributor to China’s SUPs.

An alternative reality is possible: a coffee shop in Changsha offers reusable cups for takeaway and has a 99% return rate. ShuangTi provides university cafeterias reusable food containers with a microchip inserted to track location and usage time. Across Europe and North America, returnable packaging models bloom as third-party companies partner with restaurants, offices, and online food platforms for delivery service. Such reuse actions could be a win for both waste and greenhouse gas emission challenges in China. Despite China’s bans to rein in plastic from express delivery and food takeaway by 2022, SUPs are still on the rise. Bans alone are not enough. Recycling has limited effectiveness, as less than 10% of SUPs are recycled globally. Like all other nations, China cannot recycle, burn, or bury away its plastic waste problem. To help reduce food packaging waste, China needs to better enforce bans and add reusable models into the regulatory toolbox. Chinese NGOs, businesses, and consumers have shown the feasibility of reuse models and policy incentives are needed to scale up the reuse revolution.

Bulk Up Partnerships for Better Enforcement of Bans 

The foundation of a food packaging reuse revolution is well enforced bans. Yihui from Pacific Environment, a nonprofit supporting SUP reduction and zero-waste city projects in China, elaborated in an interview how “implementation of SUP regulations is not very effective, lacking monitoring company compliance and public disclosure of enforcement data.”

For example, Shenzhen’s municipal waste regulation forbids restaurants and delivery companies to offer single-use utensils for free. A survey by Plastic Free China (PFC), a Guangzhou-based NGO dedicated to SUP policy and business advocacy, revealed that two thirds of customers still received single-use utensils despite choosing the no-utensil option in takeaway orders. Ding Yi from PFC explained in an interview how their review of “the Shenzhen urban management bureau’s records showed no enforcement of SUP utensils in takeaway orders. If there is policy, but no implementation and penalty, businesses face no risk.”

Effectively implementing the “no utensil” option requires joint efforts from government, consumers, food delivery platforms, and restaurants. Restaurant non-compliance is largely driven by old habits and fear of negative customer reviews. To promote transparency for all, PFC has advocated delivery apps to add a function for customers to report non-compliance. Delivery companies can then warn the cited restaurants and delete incorrect customer complaints. PFC is also running consumer campaigns to raise awareness about giving up SUP utensils.

Mind the Gap After Plastic Bans 

When effective enforcement of bans is achieved, finding the right alternative is critical. In response to a 2020 Chinese government Opinion banning non-biodegradable SUPs, restaurants, beverage companies, and food packaging companies turned to biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics, a vague term without clear standards, can usually only be broken down at industrial composting facilities. Chinese cities lack the proper collection and special composting infrastructure needed for biodegradable SUPs. Like conventional plastics, most biodegradable plastics are incinerated or landfilled. Reuse models are the smarter alternative to bypass these problems.

Roadmap for Scaling Reuse Revolution 

There are sparks of change among NGOs, consumers, and businesses for reduction and reuse: PE’s partner organizations successfully led consumer campaigns to pressure major bubble tea shops to adopt a bring-your-own cup policy for customers and giving discounts. Another partner is ranking bubble tea shops based on their plastic reduction performances to encourage industry change. Ding Yi from PFC interviewed an entrepreneur using reusable containers in catering to companies and deliveries to office buildings. These efforts are exciting, but three types of stronger policy support is needed for a large-scale packaging reuse revolution.

  1. Forceful Regulations. Reuse packaging systems should be armed with forceful regulations. PE’s report finds that current packaging reduction policies for the food and beverage industry rarely mention reuse. PE suggests emphasizing reuse as the solution for the war against plastics and setting clear targets for SUP phaseout. Ding Yi explained how Taiwan succeeded in banning SUPs in certain venues by 2022 and targets bans on all SUP bags and utensils by 2030. “Taiwanese municipalities are required to submit timelines for phasing out plastics. Rewards for bring-your-own mugs and provision of reusable mugs are legally enforced. This incentivized chain stores like 7-11 to develop their reusable mug system.”
  2. Economic Incentives for Businesses: According to Yihui, replicating the returnable packaging model is difficult because businesses are uncertain about the investment and a third-party capital source is necessary. To move away from voluntary experimentation to widespread adoption, PE recommends government subsidies and other policy incentives for business innovation with reuse models. China has extended producer responsibility legislation for batteries and electronics, but not yet plastic waste. Such laws make companies responsible from cradle to grave for packaging and could boost company investment into reuse systems.
  3. Hygiene Standards: Setting hygiene standards can improve consumer attitudes towards reusable  cups and other packaging. When PFC asked Starbucks about their unwillingness to adopt reuse, their biggest concern was consumer acceptance. PFC’s recent survey partially confirms: citizen acceptance of reusable parcel packaging is much higher than acceptance for reusable food containers due to hygiene concerns, says Qinyuan. According to Ding Yi, Taiwan has addressed this by licensing businesses that meet hygiene standards and labeling compliant containers.

Adopting policies to fuel business innovation and consumer behavior change can help China ignite a reuse revolution. The challenge remains how to kick start these policies, as Kristen McDonald from PE explained:

There’s a chicken-egg problem with reuse: consumers blame producers for not offering reuse, producers blame consumers for not being ready to adopt reuse. What we need are governments to come in and regulate so this is not all left to the market to sort out…because that’s not working.

This blog is part of the Wilson Center-East-West Center Vulnerable Deltas project that is diving into climate, plastic waste and development threats to three SE Asian and two Chinese deltas. The project is supported by the Luce Foundation.

Danning Lu is an intern at China Environment Forum. She is an environmental social science researcher from China graduated from Wheaton College (IL) and Yale School of the Environment. She has experience working with various environmental NGOs in China and researching grassroots environmental actions.

Sources: China Association of Circular Economy, China Dialogue, Development Asia, Environmental Science and Technology, Earth.org, Frontier Group, International Pollutants Elimination Network, Journal of Consumer Culture, National Development and Reform Committee, Pacific Environment, Plastic Free China, rePurpose, Shenzhen Government, UN, Weixin

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