China’s Super-Sized Food Culture Is Creating American-Style Problems

Chinese restaurants are wasting tons and tons of food. But how do you change a culture that values over-ordering?

China’s Super-Sized Food Culture Is Creating American-Style Problems
Chinese Food, Roberto Maxwell via Flickr

Americans waste a lot of food, and the problem is only getting worse. The country tosses 40% of all food produced into the trash, according to the National Institute of Health. The top material sent to landfills in the country: food scraps. So the stereotype of Americans as wasteful and gluttonous has more than a ring of truth. But we’re not alone.


In China, $32 billion worth of food is thrown away each year (compared to $180 billion worth of food in the U.S, which is admittedly much worse). The problem, however, is a little bit different in China

China’s food waste comes mainly from restaurants, whereas in the U.S. we’re wasteful both at home and when we dine out. In China, a culture of hospitality dictates that people order more food than they plan on eating–and the vast majority of the time, nobody brings a doggie bag of leftovers back home. “Food waste has been a problem for a very long history. The people think serving plenty of food shows hospitality to the guest, especially when dining out, and they tend to order more than enough food,” says Min Bao, manager of partnership development at BSR. As the economy has grown and eating out has become more common over the past few decades, the problem has only gotten worse.

There’s another issue: government banquets–paid for by public funds–waste food in an extravagant fashion. “There’s always been a tradition on the government side that if you want something done in business or government, you have a big banquet and have tons and tons of food. Nobody takes that home,” says Laura Ediger, associate director of advisory services at BSR. She adds: “If you’re going to invite someone to dinner and you want to get a deal done, of course you’re going to order all these expensive things.”

The practice of excess ordering is slowly getting better. This is thanks in part to Operation Empty Plate, a Chinese anti-food waste campaign that swept Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. It started when creator Xu Zhijun posted a picture of an empty plate on Weibo this past April and asked others to consider doing the same thing. The post caught fire, with 50 million people forwarding it around. Then the state-run media caught on, trumping the campaign in print and on TV.

The United Nations Environment Program also pitched in to help last year with a food waste awareness campaign. It doesn’t hurt that people in China tend to be more conservative with food at home. “People are still very thrifty and frugal with food at home and will not throw things away,” says Bao.

These days, some restaurants encourage people to order just enough food and pack up leftovers. “It’s becoming more of a social awareness thing. For a lot of restaurants, maybe they’re doing organic food, vegetarian food. It’s in line with other values they have as a restaurant,” explains Ediger. Restaurants have a vested interest in reducing food waste; they have to pay for garbage collection, so if people leave behind too much food, they’re left with a big bill. Bao says there’s also social pressure from authorities and the general public to cut down on waste.


On the business side, certain companies (i.e. Unilever Foods) are exploring how they can mitigate the problem, whether through consumer education or slashing food waste through better preparation and storage practices.

In such a rapidly growing economy, the food waste problem is unlikely to disappear. But in this case, China’s government structure helps–the U.S. government simply can’t command newspapers and TV stations to broadcast messages about food waste. And even that isn’t entirely effective. “I think it will take some years,” says Bao. “The habit of packaging up food is becoming more and more popular, but people still tend to order more than enough food.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.