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If you have been following Weibo, you would have realized that these topics are currently trending over the past few weeks — #operationcleanplates (#光盘行动), #saynotofoodwaste (#对舌尖上的浪费说不) and #cleanplatechallenge (#光盘挑战大赛). Behind these hashtags, businesses and netizens are responding to President Xi Jinping’s call to curb food waste, by showcasing photos of empty plates after their meals.
The History of “Operation Clean Plates”
This may not be the first time you hear of “Operation Clean Plates”. Experts believe the current campaign is an extension of the anti-food waste drive that was launched in 2013, although at that time, it was only targeted towards extravagant feasts hosted by officials using public funds. Since last year, however, China’s leaders have repeatedly emphasized the importance of food security to their citizens. A joint report from WWF and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2018 found that restaurants and canteens in China wasted approximately 18 million tonnes of food annually. This accounted for 3 percent of the country’s food production and could have fed up to 50 million people.
With Chinese consumers’ growing affluence, dietary habits have changed, rendering domestic food production insufficient to meet the ever-growing demand. Word Bank reported China’s arable land to make up only 0.22 acres per capita, as compared to 1.16 acres in the United States and 4.7 acres in Australia. Similarly, the 2018 Food Sustainability Index ranked China 57th out of 67 countries in agricultural sustainability. This year’s severe drought, massive flooding, COVID-19 and a resurgence of the swine flu further threaten China’s food production capability.
Additionally, imports make up about 20 percent of China’s food supply, according to official data, although academics suggest it is closer to 30 percent. China Power has reported the country to be running on a huge food trade deficit, where food imports are estimated to contribute $104.6 billion in 2017, as compared to only $59.6 billion in food exports. The COVID-19 pandemic which has closed borders as well as the nation’s escalating tensions with the US could lead to a breakdown in the global food supply chain and cause dire food shortages in China.
By curbing food waste domestically, experts believe that China can hedge itself against declines in imports and improve the nation’s food security.
China’s 3Cs in Food Waste
Tackling China’s food waste problem is a delicate dance around deeply ingrained traditions and modern influences, best summarized as the 3Cs — culture, convenience and content.
Food makes up a significant component of Chinese culture, both in social and business settings. Hosting a meal is an important gesture of friendship; guests who accept the invitation are reciprocal in maintaining the good relationship and are said to be giving the host “face” (the notion of holding one in high regard) by attending their dinner. Therefore, preparing or ordering more food than necessary to be shared by all at the table has long been viewed as a symbol of hospitality and social standing in China. Hosts typically go to great lengths to ensure that no plate is clean — a sign that guests do not have enough to eat. In fact, how much guests are valued by the host is silently and implicitly measured by the amount of leftover food.
Moreover, neither the host nor guests would pack the leftovers. For the host, it is considered stingy and thus, “losing face”. On the guests’ part, it would be impolite to suggest bringing home a meal they have already enjoyed. Furthermore, the plastic packaging and unsightly bags often used by restaurants for takeaways also contribute to the loss of “face”. As a result, China Xiaokang estimated 11.3 percent of all food served in restaurants to end up in the trash. To make matters worse, this figure escalates to 38 percent for business banquets.
Following President Xi’s decree to reduce food wastage, the Wuhan Catering Industry Association has advised restaurants to implement a “N-1” model, where patrons are encouraged to order one less dish than the total number of people in their group. Liaoning province swiftly followed with a “N-2” plan, in an effort to further reduce potential wastage. Other creative measures that have surfaced so far to encourage takeaways include waiving service charges for patrons who pack their leftovers and giving out specially designed, luxurious looking takeaway bags.
Although food delivery is known to bring about convenience, it also contributes to food wastage. As the number of single households in China rises, consumers who live alone tend to over-order their meals inadvertently. It is often difficult for one to determine whether a certain portion of food is sufficient for oneself, but easy for them to be tempted by the variety of food available.
Furthermore, set meals are not customizable to individual preferences, for instance, asking for less rice or seasoning to taste would often be impossible. Financial incentives that food delivery platforms hand out, including discounts and coupons codes, also provide consumers the impetus to over-order. According to a netizen’s comment on social media, “[t]o meet the minimum amount for discounts (满减优惠), I will add on a small dish”, even though they “won’t be able to finish it with the main meal” and “may also forget to eat it later”, thus having no choice but to discard the leftovers.
To mitigate this problem, China’s biggest food delivery platforms like Ele.me and Meituan-Dianping have rolled out “half-a-portion” and “small dish” meals. QQ Xinwen has reported Ele.me to be collaborating with DBS to donate RMB1 for every “half-a-portion” meal sold on the platform to the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. Meanwhile, Meituan-Dianping has issued guidelines to merchants to help customers make informed choices when ordering, in order to minimize food wastage.
One of the immediate casualties of China’s food waste drive is the wildly popular “mukbang”, or eating broadcasts (吃播), on short video platforms Douyin and Kuaishou. “Mukbang” has soared in popularity because it resonated with thousands of single Chinese people who eat their meals alone, with only the company of mukbang influencers eating on their phones or computers. However, certain videos of well-known Chinese “mukbang” stars, fondly known as “big tummy kings”, have been blurred recently, as some creators have removed their eating videos from the Internet to avoid being shamed. Mukbang influencers have also gone from being internet darlings to the public’s number one enemy, receiving backlash for encouraging unhealthy eating habits and contributing to food waste.
Now, users are likely to see messages and reminders such as “save food, eat properly” and “cherish food, refuse to waste, eat properly and have a healthy life” whenever they try to access an eating broadcast, an attempt to compensate for the purported negative messages these videos are claimed to spread.
Social media has become an important channel for spreading anti-food waste messages to consumers. The media has also highlighted shifting attitudes among young consumers who prioritize a good dining experience over a sumptuous spread, signifying the possibility for sustainable food consumption going forward. Their environmental awareness, alongside health and wellness considerations, will be shaping the next generation’s dining and socializing habits. Unsurprisingly, these younger consumers also have been the most eager participants in Weibo’s “Operation Clean Plates”, actively uploading photos of their empty dishes online, in order to encourage their peers to do the same. Thanks to them, saying “no” to food waste has gradually become the new cool.