Launch campaign against unnecessary plastic

By Kathleen Naday Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/11 17:48:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

I have for some time now removed the plastic cutlery that the café thinks I need whenever I buy cooked food to take home. At the weekend, I was shocked when at a bar, they put not one, but two straws in my drink - I refused them. The staff always thanks me when I do that, but I don't understand why they are shoving unnecessary stuff at me at all. But this is a drop in the ocean compared to the plastic mountain Chinese food delivery companies get through every day. Each item comes in a plastic tray, in a plastic bag, with plastic cutlery and throwaway wooden chopsticks. It doesn't matter whether they deliver to your home - where surely you have your own tableware - or the office, where many people choose to keep utensils for eating. Straws come attached to drinks, other items are surrounded by cling wrap. At the least, if one person ordered a basic meal, rice and a drink, you can expect at least six or seven plastic items, not to mention the plastic bag the delivery comes in.

A recent court case filed by an environmental group, the Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, has put the spotlight on just how wasteful China's booming takeout industry is. The three top players, Baidu, Meituan and Ele.me are being sued by the group for hard-selling disposable cutlery and chopsticks, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on September 17. The big three companies take 20 million orders daily, so at the very least, that's 20 million plastic bags plus millions more boxes, tubs and utensils.

Nearly 10 years ago, China banned free single-use plastic shopping bags. Most people are now used to paying for a bag at big stores, or taking their own. But these delivery companies have somehow skirted the law. Many customers complain they aren't given the option to not have cutlery at all. 

The express delivery industry is also a major user of single-use plastic bags - the SCMP report quoted China's State Post Bureau as revealing that 14.7 billion plastic bags were used by the delivery sector in 2016, up from 8.2 billion the year before. In addition, while the total number of plastic bags used had shrunk from 1 million tons in 2007 to 750,000 tons in 2015, other places such as farmers markets were still giving away bags, and consumers were still expecting them.

Last year, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sensationally declared that by 2050, there would be more plastic in the sea than fish measured by weight. Of course, it's difficult to know just how many fish or how much plastic is in the oceans. What we do know is that plastic doesn't degrade (bags take 500 to 1,000 years to break down, experts suggest), and increasingly, we are finding plastic particles in the food chain - from the bellies of dead whales and sharks that wash up on the shores, to microplastics (used in cosmetics like facial scrubs and bath gels) found in smaller fish, and even in sea salt. Scientists don't yet know the effect on humans or animals of this disruption to the environment.

A report this summer stated that the majority of plastic pollution in the world's oceans comes from Asian rivers, Quartz reported. The article quoted a Dutch report as saying that the Yangtze River contributed most plastic, but other rivers in China, India, Indonesia and Myanmar are also responsible. China is also the biggest producer of plastics in the world, 74.7 metric tons in 2015. No doubt, it is an important industry.

But what can be done to reduce the scale of the plastic pollution? Suing delivery companies may be just the start. Express delivery services at the scale we are now seeing in China are a relatively new phenomenon, boosted by easy online payment options and apps. Some of the more expensive food delivery companies, which market in particular to expats, do not include cutlery as standard, and seem to encourage restaurants to use more environment friendly food containers made of cardboard or other materials.

The big three Chinese delivery platforms, in the wake of the court case filings, have made noises about adding a button to choose whether you want cutlery, and encouraging its suppliers to switch their packaging. But this alone won't do the trick. Plastic is cheap and it's everywhere. Other companies also need to step up - there will not be much reduction in plastic waste if an express delivery service foregoes a plastic bag, if whatever you ordered comes inside a massive box, stuffed with plastic bubble wrap, with your goods inside, yet more hard plastic you have to virtually destroy to liberate your goods.

Recent bans on free plastic bags in the UK, and places like New Delhi and Kenya - which enacted the world's toughest plastic bag ban in August attracting jail terms of up to four years - show that people do change their behavior if money or changes in the law are involved.

The delivery platforms should charge for use of plastics - a fee if cutlery is needed, and a general levy to be used for recycling initiatives and environmental clean-ups. Big companies need to look at how they can reduce or cut completely their use of plastics. British media company Sky has pledged to phase out all single-use plastics in new products by the end of the year, and from their entire supply chain by 2020. Supermarket Tesco has announced it will no longer make single-use bags available in stores, even though the fee they charged for them goes to charity.

But consumers also need to act. In part, encouraging big companies to change corporate policy is a start - but in the case of China's delivery and food industries, there are multiple small players. We need to tell them we don't need the cutlery they throw into the bag, nor the straws that come in our drinks. We must refuse the plastic bags we are given at markets that we know we really should be paying for. We need to take responsibility for our own recycling and use of plastics, because it's not enough to be outraged at millions of unnecessary bags being used so we don't have to cook our own dinner - we need to start telling the companies they need to find a better way. If the court case forces the big three delivery companies to take action, so much the better, but we must all take responsibility too. 

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer who is doing postgraduate studies in sustainability at SOAS, University of London. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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