Reducing your plastic usage in China

You might have seen it on the news: plastic residues are a huge problem for our planet. All the plastic that has ever been produced is still on the surface of the planet because it is not biodegradable (and only a small percentage is recycled); the oceans are full of plastic trash; not even remote, uninhabited islands are free from it; plastic fibres are present in tap water all over the world; in 30 years there will be more plastic than fish in the seas. It sounds like a nightmare, or like a horror movie, but it is real, it is happening right now and it only took a few decades. And all because of something seemingly so harmless and common like plastic.

Do you have a separate bin for the plastic residues you generate? I have, as we got separate trash containers for “normal” trash and for “recyclable” trash lately in our compound. In China, the recycling business is a bit shady. Many retired people are in the habit of rummaging through the trash containers in the street to find things that can be sold to the recycling trucks, like carton boxes and plastic bottles. These people are not beggars, just old people that lived during hard times and learned to make money out of anything. You can then see them selling their stash to the recycling truck parked in the street for a few yuan. Later I guess the recycling truck resells it to some factory that has recycling machines. But not all plastics can be recycled (for example, if they are dirty) and plastic cannot be recycled more than a few times as it loses its properties and becomes of inferior quality.

Think about the supermarket you usually go to buy your groceries. How many things can you find there that are not covered in plastic? Maybe the fruit, if you are lucky. But in many supermarkets even fruits are packaged in plastic trays and covered in plastic film. It looks cleaner and fancier. But those packaging materials will go directly to the bin as soon as you arrive home and put your fresh fruits on your pretty fruit bowl. Was it necessary to have all that plastic covering your apples? Wouldn’t it be better (and even cheaper for the supermarket) if you brought your own reusable bag and chose the apples from a box of loose fruit? There are definitely some things we can easily do to reduce our single-use plastic consumption. This is a list of the things I am already doing.

Bring a reusable bag. Not only because supermarkets charge for bags at the cash registers, but because it doesn’t make any sense to accumulate so many plastic bags at home. In China, only big supermarkets charge for bags. Grocery stores and fruit shops are still a free bags area and if you are buying several things you end up with 6-7 bags per trip. I started using the baskets provided in store to put everything there and then bagging everything together in my reusable bag after weighting and paying. I have done this even in supermarkets and the weighting clerks agreed to put the price sticker directly on the produce, instead of forcing me to use a plastic bag for each thing. For small loose things I sometimes bring smaller bags, or if I have to take a plastic bag in the shop I will reuse it later to pick my dog’s droppings (I am trying to use more newspapers instead of plastic bags for that too). Any big plastic bags you get can be reused as trash bags. I am a bit mad with my current grocery store as they have started film wrapping all the produce. Seriously, who needs their eggplants or their carrots film wrapped?? I am thinking about talking to the owner and ask him to stop doing that, or changing grocery stores (it would be the second time I change stores, I changed over one year ago to the current store because the other one I used to go to started film wrapping everything too).

Ain’t no one needs their purple sweet potatoes film wrapped and on a plastic tray.

Reduce takeaway orders. To be honest, I have almost completely stopped ordering takeaways. I used to order maybe once every two weeks, when I didn’t feel like cooking, but I don’t do it anymore. Plastic residues from takeaways orders are a huge problem in China. The meal boxes are made of plastic, then packed in a bag, and you also get disposable cutlery (even when in the order you specified you didn’t want). And don’t get me started on takeaway drinks. I stopped drinking bubble tea because the only way to buy it is in a disposable plastic cup and with a plastic straw. Straws are the devil, and the worst part is that in 99% of cases they are completely unnecessary. In many restaurants in China, you get served a straw with your drink even when you didn’t ask for it. Hello? I am not a 2 year old and I don’t have any problems in my mouth, I can sip a drink from the glass. On the rare occasions I go to Starbucks, Costa Coffee or similar chains, I tell the cashier I want my drink in a real cup, not in a disposable cup. Most of the times they comply (except in airports, where it seems they only have disposables).

Rethink hygiene products. I swapped shampoo bottles and shower gel for shampoo and soap bars. The cleaning effects are the same and I avoid having to throw empty plastic containers after the product is used up. Some soap bars come packed in a plastic bag but it’s still better than a container, I guess, if only because it’s way smaller. Soap bars are widely available in supermarkets in China; shampoo bars not so much but I found a few options on Taobao. I also stopped using clothes detergent and I’ve been using soap nuts for something like 2 years. They work and they are extremely cheap (also got them on Taobao). If you think soap nuts are too hippie, you can at least swap your liquid detergent for powder detergent which comes in carton boxes!

Shampoo soap bar from Taobao.

Reusable liquids containers. Last year I started having milk delivered home in glass bottles which I later wash and put back in the milk box so they get reused. I know it’s a very old idea and I love it! The only problem is that, at least in Suzhou, these milk bottles only come in 200 ml size, which is pretty small, and they cost twice as much as imported carton milks. I can’t understand it. How can it be more expensive to bring me milk from a distance of 30 kilometres, than shipping it from New Zealand or Germany (and deliver it to my door as well, and considering foreign products pay ridiculous taxes in China)? I also have big water bottles delivered home (unfortunately, China’s tap water is not safe for drinking); the bottles are reusable and the delivery guy takes back the old ones. I bought C. a reusable small bottle that can be filled to use in the car, as he used to buy small mineral water bottles before. I never buy soft drinks and when C. complains we only drink water, I buy him juice in glass bottles. I also stopped buying yogurt and I do it myself. Bye bye single use yogurt containers!

It’s called Timing Milk, but it should be Tiny Milk instead!

Reduce online shopping. I am trying to buy less, in general. I hardly buy any clothes; I think the clothes in my wardrobe are, in average, around 4 years old. As I have the luxury of being able to work from home, I don’t really need to invest in new clothes as I can wear old, tattered ones in the “office”. I also try to buy less groceries online because the amount of packaging material is completely crazy. Today I received an order and every item was packed separately. WTF. Besides, I blacklist some products that use too much packaging. For example, there is a brand of biscuits I like but, apart from the external plastic package, biscuits are inside small bags containing 4 biscuits each. Sorry, biscuits, I’m not going to buy you anymore.

Today I received an order from an online supermarket and everything was packed separately… it’s the first time I see this.


I still have many more things pending, like getting cloth bags to buy loose things like rice and eggs, learning how to make my own bread and biscuits, getting a menstrual cup… and hundreds of others that I haven’t thought about yet. Saying no to plastic is so hard in China, so I’m doing baby steps. Even toilet paper rolls come individually wrapped in plastic and then packed inside a big plastic bag. And buying imported groceries online is so much cheaper than buying them in the supermarket, but then you have to deal with the crazy packaging…