Going zero-waste in a country where most people don’t recycle

Ep.2/Aug 08, 2019

Elsa Tang, a zero-waste activist in Beijing, still remembers the look of confusion on the vegetable seller’s face when she turned down a plastic bag.

“But it’s free,” Tang recalls her saying. “Why don’t you just take it? You want me to put these potatoes inside your clean tote bag? They’ll make it dirty.”

Elsa Tang, right, at a produce market in Beijing.
Elsa Tang, right, at a produce market in Beijing. / Photo: George Zhi Zhao

Her anecdote is telling of the attitudes that many Chinese people still hold toward environmentalism. There is little stigma attached to single-use plastic, recycling bins are rare, and the concept that individuals can take baby steps to help the environment is unfamiliar to many people.

But about three years ago, Tang decided to try something that seemed nearly impossible in China: live a zero-waste lifestyle.

Like her peers around the world, Tang composts her food waste, makes her own detergent, and furnishes her home with second-hand furniture.

(Read more: What it’s like to live off the grid in Hong Kong)

But because she lives in China, there are a few extra steps that she has to take.

For example, there are no recycling bins in her neighborhood, so she has to visit different recycling plants to offload any paper and plastic waste she generates. 

This could change in the near future. In recent years, China has waged a war on waste. The government plans to make recycling and waste-sorting mandatory in 46 cities by the end of next year, and nationwide by 2025.

It has also restricted foreign waste imports so that recycling plants can focus on domestic garbage.

(Read more: The millions of bicycles going to waste in China)

When I asked Tang what made it hard to go zero-waste in China, I assumed the hassle of recycling would come on top.

But instead, she says letting go of online shopping has been the hardest. 

“In the beginning, I was not really used to it,” she says. “I’d been ordering food delivery for a few years, and then suddenly, I had to stop.”

Elsa Tang says she can now put two weeks’ worth of waste into one jar.
Elsa Tang says she can now put two weeks’ worth of waste into one jar. / Photo: Courtesy of Elsa Tang

One of the mantras of modern Chinese life is 买买买 maimaimai, or “buy buy buy”—an unabashed promotion of profligate consumption and instant gratification.

Apps catering to consumers’ every need have made city living in China extremely convenient. You can have your meals, groceries, and even medicine delivered to your door within an hour—and often at very low prices.

Tang admits it was difficult in the beginning to give up this convenience.

“I couldn’t stop going on shopping apps.”

“I couldn’t stop going on shopping apps,” she says.

But ultimately, Tang chose to reject consumerism. She stresses that she can still live stylishly, by getting new clothes at a monthly clothing swap and only buying quality items that can last for years when she has to procure something new.

Tang’s story shines light on a fundamental issue in China. In its war on trash, the government may have a bigger problem than getting its people to sort and recycle—and that is the “buy buy buy” lifestyle that will be difficult to give up.

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Producer and Narrator: Venus Wu

Videographers: Beimeng Fu and George Zhi Zhao

Editor: Joel Roche

Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Joel Roche