While the topic of food waste has been a hot topic in the West, fueled in part by stories of 3,000 miles Caesar salads, in China the topic of food waste is only starting to become a topic of discussion. Unlike in the West though, where food waste is seen as a problem to be solved to avert future food crisis or is linked to larger problems like climate change, in China the problem has largely become topical through multiple scandals involving food waste re-entering the consumer market.
The most serious of which was the 2010 gutter oil scandal where used oil was being sold through an informal network of processors that would then sell it back into the market. Once public, the scandal catalyzed consumers and government into action, with the government using the scandal as an opportunity to begin formalizing the food waste management system. A process that led to the “Innocent treatment and resource utilization of food waste” law, which was announced on China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, that was meant to encourage the development of a food waste recycling system that would (1) divert food waste from landfill and (2) reuse the waste safely.
In Shanghai, a city where food waste collection systems were set up to ensure the flow of food waste to treatment and utilization units, there are still many challenges to the process. In part because a lucrative market for selling food waste still exists, and the government’s investments (and partnerships) have yet to reach capacity.
However, through our research, we have found a number of interesting pilot programs that we thought we would share as they have the potential to provide a market outlet for solving the challenge.
While it is known that earthworms are a great natural way to process large quantities of food waste, China’s food waste tends to have high salinity, which historically has resulted in a compost product that many Chinese farmers preferred not to use (in favor of other manures). In addition, as the cities continued to grow, worm farms were faced with fewer plots of available land and push back against their neighbors for creating unpleasant smells. All of which resulted in a lot of worm farmers closing up shop.
However, in the last couple of years, there has been renewed interest by some farmers. One of which, Mr. Zhou, whose farm we recently visited. With a plot of 20-30 acres, he is currently able to process up to of 40 tonnes per day, enough to help divert an entire district’s food waste. At this farm, which is still without a license, food waste will be mixed with soil and bits of wood and be allowed to ferment for a few days underground.
Through setting up this farm though, perhaps the most interesting part of the operation is that Mr. Zhou was able to take soil that was contaminated and considered of poor quality (for farming) and has been able to rehabilitate the land and is now grow organic fruit and vegetables!
Another solution that we saw was one that was focused on on-site food waste management and visited a disposal facility that has been installed in one of the canteens at a leading Shanghai University.
As shown in the figure below, trash such as plastics or chopsticks will be sorted from the food waste. Then, food waste will be sent to a heated fermentation tank where thermophiles are added. This facility is much more efficient than centralizing disposal that 1 ton food waste can turn into 1 ton of organic compost within 6-8 hours which can be then sold for campus greening, landscaping or land repairing.
Mr. Wang, the CEO of technology firm said “Now, due to the central policies’ support, waste-to-resource is definitely the future. Formal departments are now coming to us to buy our facilities. Our day is coming.”, and like Mr. Zhou, they also grow organic fruit and vegetables using this compost as a part of their aspirations to get all the necessary licenses and certifications required to sell their product.
While, in China, the introduction of laws and regulations around efficiency and safe food waste management have helped to catalyze a number of large investments, the role of entrepreneurs as solution providers has become an area of innovation for China. Innovation that will over time not only help China, and its cities, managed waste, but will likely find the scale in other parts of the Asia region where the management of waste is a challenge.