Packaging: no gift to the earth

Traditional festivals have lost their cultural significance and become excuses for giving presents that come with too much wrapping, writes Huo Weiya. Such excess is not good for the environment.

Early this year, I attended a China-Europe civil society conference. Before the meeting ended, the European attendees presented their Chinese hosts with a gift – four bars of chocolate. It was, they explained, both fair-trade and organic chocolate.

My companion joked that the Europeans had obviously read up on China’s culture of gift-giving and were seizing an opportunity to follow local customs. And while they may have been doing as the Romans do, it could be worth China’s while to follow suit and examine its own gift-giving practices.

Etiquette has always been a key part of Chinese culture, but over time this has turned into the more materialist habit of gift-giving. China’s traditional festivals have lost their cultural significance and become excuses for giving presents. Mid-Autumn Festival is a prime example. Traditionally, families gathered to eat mooncakes and admire the full moon. Now, it a time for strengthening relationships between leaders, bosses and employees with a well-chosen gift.

But mooncakes – the only appropriate offering at this time of year – are cheap, and gifts should be expensive. So the manufacturers meet consumer needs with “high-added-value” mooncakes. Originally sold unpackaged or in simple paper wrappings, they now come in luxury gift sets.

A Chinese story tells of a man who, hoping to obtain a higher price for some pearls he planned to sell, made a decorative box to keep them in. A buyer admires the box and purchases it, only to return the pearls later, believing them to have been left in the box in error. The same now happens with mooncakes. The purchase is made not for the product, but for the packaging. The food itself may not even taste that good, but the box is impressive.

It was mooncakes that brought the term “excessive packaging” into the public vocabulary, and the issue has cropped up annually these last few years. The relevant government departments act out an offensive every year, issuing notices and examining products on the shelves. There’s a bout of media and public debate about the waste of resources, pollution, unnecessary extravagance and so forth. Everyone is well aware of the problem – but two weeks later it passes and is forgotten.

The back-and-forth plays out every year, but now all kinds of products come in excessive packaging. Wen Zheji is head of the Kaifa Environmental Technology Consulting Centre, a provider of packaging to the food processing and catering industries. He tells of watching clients leaf through various packaging options and asking them what they’re looking for, only to be told: “The most expensive!” Only the costliest of packaging will add to the product’s value.

But the waste produced, bar that which is worth recycling, will end up in landfill. Jin Shi, secretary-general of the International Food Packaging Association (IFPA), explains that “seven or eight different kinds of material are used in packaging, including metals, glass and silk, and that makes it harder to recycle; you can’t put it all through one process”. China still doesn’t have specialised recycling for packaging.

Wang Weiping, an adviser to Beijing’s municipal government, once said in an interview that “packaging restrictions could cut domestic waste by about 17%”. That would be no small contribution to the reduction in waste production that China urgently needs to make.

The government has attempted to address the issue through regulations and standards. In 2005, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) issued a compulsory national mooncake standard to put an end to excess packaging. In September of this year, it published rules for measuring mooncake packaging, so that actual measurements, rather than the judgement of individual officials, would be used to decide whether or not packaging is excessive. And in March, requirements for packaging for food and cosmetics were issued, extended restrictions to two new product types.

While a public hearing on the wider-ranging regulations on restricting excessive product packaging was held in September 2008, AQSIQ official Li Minggang said this July that the regulations were still being “researched”. Management measures for recycling and reuse of packaging were reported to be due for release at the end of last year, but according to Yu Duyuan, senior engineer at the China National Packaging Corporation’s technology centre, “they’re still under approval.”

Li Minggang says that “if we are to solve the issue of excess packaging, we need State Council regulations, departmental rules and, one day, an actual law to provide the basis for enforcement and criteria for manufacturers, distributors and consumers to work to.”

But the annual attacks on packaging and the moves described above are aimed at manufacturers and retailers – and this misses the actual cause of the problem.

How effective can regulation of manufacturing and retail be if market demand remains? There already are two different sets of regulations on moon-cake packaging, and the problem has been tackled nationwide for years. Mooncake packaging was the first to attract attention and debate. But the problem just gets worse.

The excess-packaging issue is, in fact, a test of consumer responsibility. The vast majority of purchases of gift-boxed mooncakes are not for personal consumption. They are to be given as gifts, and it is the package that makes them suitable gifts. The same is done with alcohol and tea – also popular gifts – in order to meet the demand for gifts as a part of strengthening interpersonal relationships.

Gift items are not the only excessively packaged products, but they are the worst offender. To quote a line from Chinese actor and director Feng Xiaogang: “I don’t want the best. I want the most expensive.” As long as this consumption and gift-giving continues, the demand for luxury packaging will remain. The most government measures will achieve is to force the smarter manufacturers to find a way around them.

You can’t solve a problem just by banning certain behaviour; an alternative needs to be provided. A Chinese advertising jingle for a health supplement – “Giving a present? Give health!” – shows that good health is more of a concern now as standards of living rise. That jingle could be applied to excess packaging, but referring not to the health of an individual, but to public consumption, particularly in gift-giving.

The Europeans of the first paragraph made a point of mentioning that their gift was organic and fairly traded. It would have been more expensive than normal products, but it is better for the environment and vulnerable groups.

The Chinese people might not be ready to follow that example. The ideas haven’t taken root and the products simply aren’t on the market. But we can start by being responsible consumers and boycotting excessively packaged products.

(The expert opinions above are drawn mainly from chinadialogue and the Sohu environmental channel’s July Green Choice Forum, “Don’t pick up the bill for excessive packaging”.)

Huo Weiya is operations and development manager for chinadialogue in Beijing and former editor-in-chief of
Environmental Culture Newsletter, published by Green Student Forum, an environmental NGO established in 1996.

The problem of excessive packaging has been discussed annually in recent years in China, but never in a sustained manner. The government hopes to tackle the issue through policy changes. What do you think? What should be done? Tell us on our forum . . .
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