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What it’s like to try living green in China


(July 2): For the past six years, Yu Yuan has been doing everything she can to live a life that produces no non-degradable waste. She takes her own coffee mug and chopsticks to cafes and restaurants, she buys second-hand clothes and she never orders food deliveries. During the day, she runs a shop in an old Beijing alley that sells housewares. None are single-use plastic and customers don’t get a bag.

“It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, because every Chinese person used to have a low-carbon lifestyle when the country was less developed,” said Yu, 30. “I will find ways to make it happen.”

China set a goal two years ago to reach peak emissions before 2030 and zero them out by 2060, and one of the 10 key missions of the government’s official roadmap to meet those targets is a “green lifestyle for all people.” Designed to raise people’s awareness of their personal carbon footprints, it encourages the promotion of low-emission products, better labeling and more climate education. In practice, though, it’s not easy for Chinese consumers to make informed choices about what they buy, because the country lags behind places like Europe in requiring and policing product information.

“China should build a legal system to promote green-product certification and make sure the system has strong legal support,” said Wang Jianming, a professor at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics.

Take shopping for example. The sector in China has moved online fast, making low-carbon purchases harder. Last year, the online share of retail sales was projected to be more than half the total in the country, up from just 20% in 2016. In the US it’s about 15% and even less in Western Europe. All those delivered goods generated 9.4 million tons of packaging in China in 2018, according to Greenpeace, and the amount could rise by 2025 to 41 million tons, equivalent to Japan’s total annual waste.

Every year, China’s leading e-commerce platforms, including Taobao.com and JD.com, promote their green efforts, exhorting sellers to use more recyclable packaging and less plastic tape. Yet the pace of expansion of the industry is overwhelming and while there’s no penalty for over-packing, sellers risk losing money if poorly protected goods are damaged during transit.

On Meituan and Ele.me, China’s biggest online food ordering platforms, customers now can book a “green order” by opting for no disposable cutlery. Yet even this small concession sometimes fails, with some restaurants just adding the plastic utensils anyway.

Ellery Li, a project advisor at Beijing-based China Youth Climate Action Network, says this is one example of where individual action can bring change.

“It’s a common debate — how much do personal choices really make a difference on climate,” said Li. “Yes, changing grand settings like the energy infrastructure is most important, but individual-level actions and awareness are also a kind of voting that can push companies to change.”

He said since the food-ordering apps added the ability for customers to complain if restaurants put cutlery in green orders, he has noticed more outlets are paying attention.

Unfortunately for environmentally conscious consumers in China, it’s not easy to find information about the carbon footprint of most products. China launched a green product verification system in 2016, but it only covers 19 categories so far. The standards are unclear and oversight is poor, making it hard for customers to check whether the companies’ emissions claims are true.

In a 2021 survey in China, 72% of respondents said they try to buy from environmentally friendly companies, but 41% found the lack of available green options the biggest barrier. Another poll showed that about two thirds of people found it hard to tell if a product is really as low-carbon as companies claim.

Online markets are making efforts to change. Alibaba’s Tmall.com in April added a green label for some energy-efficient home appliances, providing information on emissions for some air conditioners, washing machines and other products, with the promise to add more. Alibaba, which has promised to cut 1.5 gigatons of emissions by 2035 from its entire supply chain, said digital platforms can play “a pivotal role in transitioning to the low-carbon circular economy.”

But for individuals like Yu, the changes are too slow. She feels her best option is simply to buy less. Her wardrobe now has no more than 50 items. She stopped buying bottled water six years ago. She estimates she produced less than 0.5kg of non-degradable waste in the past six months.

Yu’s shop, The Bulk House, attracts a mix of customers, from young hipsters to older shoppers who lives as much as an hour away. At the entrance, Yu posted her story together with six hand-written cards that repeat the maxim of Franco-American environmental activist Bea Johnson: “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, Rot.”

 “There are many temptations for people to buy more, so my lifestyle is a bit like swimming against the tide,” said Yu. “But I am ok with that. Progress can only happen if everyone does a bit.”





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