Any expat who lives in China can easily rattle off the ways China is harming Mother Earth. (air quality index, anyone?) But there are also plenty of ways that the laobaixing incorporate environmentally friendly habits into their everyday lives, even if being green is not their main intent. In fact, I think they beat their American counterparts in at least these eight categories.
1. Plastic bags
In 2008, in what felt like an overnight decision, China banned free plastic bags. And just like that – boom! – everyone was carrying around reusable bags for groceries and other purchases. By some estimates, the ban resulted in 40 billion less bags per year being used in China. Whoa. By contrast, nearly a decade later, less than half of U.S. states currently have plastic bag bans. (Some argue that plastic bag bans do not end up positively affecting the environment in the long-run.)
In China, almost everyone uses the greenest clothes dryer of all: the laundry line. Multiply that by a population of 1.37 billion and that trounces the U.S. where it’s standard practice to use dryers, and it’s actually illegal in some places to hang your clothes outside to dry.
Village, small town, small city, big city – everywhere I’ve been in China is set up for environmentally friendly transportation. Despite a surge in private car ownership, most people still walk to get groceries, bike to get around the neighborhood, take buses across town, and take trains or long-distance buses to other destinations. Aside from a few major urban centers in the States, it’s car, car, car, and car for those trips.
4. Packaging and waste
I was astounded when I first saw the kitchen trash cans in China. They looked so tiny! I soon realized they were adequate because my Chinese neighbors were only generating about one tiny bag of garbage per family per day. Compare that to America, where every house on our street had two big ol’ bins at the curb each week, often filled to capacity. From our family’s own experience, most of the difference is in the form of food packaging. There is just so much of it in the States. So, it doesn’t surprise me to find that the U.S. is on the not-good end of the scale in this map visualization from the Waste Atlas. (Click on the Visualizations tab, then choose “Waste Generation per Capita” from the list.)
5. Eating local
China was eating local before it was cool. There is a heavy preference for produce that is grown locally and vendors will quickly point out if the fruit or vegetable they’re selling is 本地的. That might mean it was grown within that urban area, or might mean it was somewhere else in the province, but it always means it was not shipped for days from across the continent. As income levels rise, there is a corresponding increase in interest in “exotic” fruit and veggies imported from other countries, but for the most part, people eat what’s in season and what was grown nearby. This habit has a much lighter carbon footprint than produce consumption in the U.S. where many fruits and vegetables are trucked in from other states/countries and consumed out of season.
6. Climate control
The most environmentally friendly way to air condition or heat your house is to not. Cooling = open doors and windows at night, hand fans and staying in the shade during the day. Heating = wearing a winter coat, hat, and gloves inside your home or office. Even in the sweltering hot, humid summers of Guangxi, air conditioners were seldom switched on, or they were kept at the bare minimum setting just so a store or taxi could advertise that they had kongtiao going. (Please note that I am just pointing out that these habits are more environmentally friendly, not that they are more pleasant. My sweat glands still have night terrors when they remember the swampy summers of Guangxi.) In the U.S., creature comfort reigns supreme and therefore the heat and a/c often get cranked. Sorry, Biosphere 1.
Old advertising billboards become the walls of a sanlunche. A styrofoam box becomes a planter for cilantro. Flyers for the hot pot restaurant get folded into “trash bins” for the dining table. So much in China gets re-imagined as something else. In the U.S., we talk a good game. There are hundreds of cute videos and Pins about how to make utensil holders out of popsicle sticks or whatever, but from what I’ve observed, people are way more likely to go buy a pack of “craft sticks” at Michael’s than to save up sticks from eating actual popsicles.
The U.S. recycling scheme relies on consumers to sort out their own trash and get it to the right place. I imagine there is a lot of “user error” (read: I seriously do not feel like rinsing out this refried bean can to make it clean enough to put in the blue bin) and recyclable materials end up going into the landfill. In China, you have dedicated volunteers digging through trash cans daily to pull out anything that can be recycled. They can sell it to make a little extra money, so they are motivated to make the effort to find each and every recyclable item. My insiders have told me the payments for recycled goods have fallen so there are not as many people digging through the trash as before, but I never noticed a difference. One of my neighbors even claimed an area in the stairwell to hoard recyclables so she could sell them about once a month. (Plot twist #1: guess who has bought most of the U.S.’s recycling bales in the past? China! Plot twist #2: They don’t want our trash any more.)
For sure, China has a long way to go to lessen their impact on the environment. On the whole, the U.S. beats them for things like manufacturing and vehicle emission regulations. But if they keep up a lot of these everyday habits along with changing broader regulations (like banning diesel/gas vehicles), I think they have a very green future.
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