Food waste

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Food waste in China is a big issue to tackle.

According to a report issued by authors Jun Zhang and Chuchu Zhang, it is estimated that major Chinese cities produced approximately the astonishing number of  88.65 million tons of food waste in 2016, and that first-tier municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai produce 1,000 to 2,000 tons of food waste per day.

This report highlights that “Food waste today mainly ends up in landfills or incinerators without undergoing proper treatment, or is illegally diverted into the informal system to feed livestock or produce cooking oil through practices that have resulted in serious food safety problems”.

In a famous case in 2015, it was discovered that some KFC stores in Songjiang arbitrarily handed over kitchen waste to a Company A, which then handed it over to an unqualified Company B, who then handed it over to a farm owner as feed for pigs. Company A, Company B and the farmer were fined and punished for this.

In brief, food waste is (i) waste of valuable resources, (ii) an environmental threat as well as (iii) a food safety threat.

China is trying to both reduce the amount of food waste and improve its disposal and recycling system.


What actions to reduce food waste?

 Several policies have been enacted in this sense in the last ten years aimed at promoting food-saving behaviors:

  • In 2010, the General Office of the State Council issued the “Notice on Further Strengthening the Work of Saving Food against Waste“, requiring provincial government and agencies to fully understand the importance of saving food, to strengthen publicity, leadership and supervision.
  • In 2014, the General Office of the Central Committee issued the “Opinions on Strictly Saving Food and Fighting Waste”. This document applies to party and government organs at all levels and state-owned enterprises and institutions, and advocates the implementation of scientific and civilized catering consumption patterns in society. It also clearly proposed to promote the utilization of food waste resources. For official government banquets, it is recommended to mainly provide home-cooked foods and foods that are common in different regions of China, and to arrange the number of meals in a rational way to prevent waste.
  • the “Proposal of 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development”, proposed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China In 2015, put forward “Three “Anti-” Actions”: anti-over-packaging, anti-food waste, anti-over-consumption.
  • A 2010 “Opinions on Strengthening the Improvement of Waste Oil and the Management of Kitchen Wastes” provides detailed obligations for food service operators, including specific requirements for collection and transportation of food waste, establishment of a waste management register and sanctions. At the same time, it also promotes the utilization and harmless treatment of kitchen wastes, implement and strengthen supervision, inspection and publicity and education for correct disposal of food waste.
  • Clean Your Plate” campaign. On January 16, 2013, a Weibo (a popular Chinese social network) user launched the “ Clean Your Plate ” campaign, aimed at reducing food waste at restaurants. The campaign soon went viral and it was supported by many celebrities and media. On January 22, 2013 CCTV News reported the activity, calling on everyone to “Save food, start from me”. This – amongst other – resulted in regulations being enacted such as “Opinions on Strictly Saving Food and Opposing Waste” on March 11, 2014 and “Notice on Promoting the Catering Industry to Save Food and Oppose Waste” on April 10, 2014, whereby catering enterprises are encouraged to take incentive to actively guide consumers to save food, post or display promotional posters or signs in prominent places, accurately mark the amount of food on the menu, and actively remind consumers to order food on demand, consume rationally, pack leftovers before ordering, and differentiate portions (such as “half meal” and “small meal”). Catering companies are also encouraged to marked the content of portions on the menu.
  • The so-called “Transparent Kitchen Program” is also inspired by these regulations and it urges catering service units to establish a management system for the disposal of kitchen waste and classify and place kitchen waste; to establish a table account for the disposal of kitchen waste to record in detail the types, quantities, destinations and uses of kitchen waste; to calculate the production of kitchen waste in catering service units.

In general, all departments and state-owned enterprises and institutions in all regions shall disclose the expenses for official dining. Each region shall establish a standard for the expenses of official dining in the region and adjust it regularly.

Canteens of organs and state-owned enterprises and institutions shall provide food “according to the principles of health and simplicity, match dishes rationally, and pay attention to dietary balance”.

Canteen shall also establish a registration system for diners, implement dynamic management, purchase and prepare meals according to the number of diners. Canteens shall also arrange a special person to be responsible for the inspection of the canteen, and give criticism and education to the wasteful behavior.

Most of these policies – yet – seem lacking the real “motivating agent”: sanctions, or rewards. Shanghai municipality is acting in this regard and it has enacted regulations whereby any kitchen waste producer shall pay a fee for the treatment of kitchen waste to the competent institution in accordance with the type and quantity of kitchen waste collected and transported. The base amount of unit domestic waste disposal shall be checked once a year. Food waste disposal fees vary between 60 and 120 RMB per barrel (240 liters).


Reducing plastic use

Something is being done in this regard, but not much indeed. In 2007, the “Notice on Restricting the Production and Sale of Plastic Shopping Bags”, prohibits the production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic shopping bags, implements the paid use system of plastic shopping bags and improves the recycling level of waste plastics.

The “Measures for the Supervision and Administration of Food Safety of Internet Catering Services” enforced in 2018 encourage third-party platform providers of online catering services to provide degradable food containers, tableware and packaging materials.

In 2018, SAMR issued the “Food Safety Operational Regulations for Catering Services” to encourage catering service providers to reduce the use of disposable tableware. It is recommended that plastic materials shall not be used as containers for hot foods, and disposable containers should not be reused. The disposable containers and tableware should be made of materials that meet the food safety requirements, and degradable materials are preferred.

However, in practice, these recommendations are not duly matched by sanctions and/or rewards.


Kitchen waste disposal

 This is a key issue, due to its environmental and food-safety consequences.

The regulatory framework of food waste disposal includes several national and local regulations.

Food Safety Operational Regulations for Catering Service of 2018 provide detailed regulations on the management of food waste, including containers, facilities and signs for waste storage, classified disposal of waste, and waste management registers.

Before handing over the food waste, food service providers shall inspect the qualification certificate of any kitchen waste collector shall be obtained and retained, and a contract of shall be signed with them to clarify their respective food safety responsibilities and obligations.

A kitchen waste register shall be kept for the records, and a food waste disposal account shall be established to record in detail the disposal time, type, quantity, and transporter of the kitchen waste.

The “Opinions on Strengthening the Improvement of Waste Oil and the Management of Kitchen Wastes” also provides detailed regulations on the food waste management, including regulating the collection and transportation of waste, establishing a waste management account and punishing the illegal acts.

At the same time, it also proposes to promote the utilization and harmless treatment of kitchen wastes, clarify the responsibilities of various departments, implement and strengthen supervision, inspection and publicity and education for correct disposal of food waste. In particular:

  • Kitchen waste generating units shall establish a management system for the disposal of kitchen wastes, and classify the kitchen wastes.
  • It is strictly forbidden to dump kitchen wastes directly into public waters or into public toilets and domestic garbage collection facilities.
  • Kitchen waste shall not be handed over to the kitchen waste collection and transportation unit or individual that has not been approved or filed by the relevant department.
  • Livestock shall not be fed with kitchen waste that has not been harmlessly treated.
  • Kitchen waste shall be transported sealed in containers with kitchen waste logo, and leakage during transportation shall be avoided.
  • Any unit that produces, collects, and disposes kitchen waste shall establish an account, recording the type, quantity, destination, use, etc. of the kitchen waste, and report regularly to regulatory authorities.

Sanctions for failure to dispose food waste in compliance with the regulations go up to 50,000 yuan; if the circumstances are serious, the license will be revoked.

Strict enforcement will be key to reduce the problem of “unofficial” disposal channel.



 First tier cities are trying to find new approach to the food waste issue. Landfills shall cease to be used in Shanghai by 2020, while alternatives to incinerating plants will also be searched.

As highlighted by the report, possible options for the future recycle of food waste may be earthworm composting (worms and their casting are soil conditioners and compost) – i.e. food waste becomes feed for worms, which are then used as soil conditioners or organic compost in agricultural activities. See some interesting stories about insect farming here

Another use may be for microorganism composting, i.e. decomposition through microorganism and conversion into microbial fertilizers.

However, while new technologies are being developed, a regulatory framework for the byproducts from these processes shall be created in order to allow legitimate their trade as fertilizers.


Meanwhile, enforcement of current regulations shall be improved.



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