Food Waste Management: A MASSIVE Growth Opportunity in China

With China’s growing number of urban consumers, more and more pressure is being placed on the system to account for the outputs of cities, particularly on its food systems. One of the growing concerns is the issue of managing the sizeable amount of food waste that is coming from restaurants, canteens, and households. It is a concern that is increasingly strained by the poor waste management practices that exist, matched to the already strained waste management system that is struggling to support the growing amount of other wastes that are being created by the city.

As part of our wider effort to understand how a city of the future will manage the wastes created by their economies, which we have covered in a series of previous posts, over the next couple of months we will be looking at food waste and the management of it.

Mapping out the (Formal) Food Waste Management System

Like other waste management systems, we have studied the management of food waste is segmented into three core activities, classification, collection, and disposal, each with separate responsible parties, and involves a wide range of key players at each stage.

Traditionally, Chinese waste treatment was not driven by rules and regulations, but following the used gutter oil scandal, stringent regulations were introduced to help improve the governance and practices of food waste treatment. Which in the short term help to catalyze district governments to offer short-term franchises to qualified companies selected through a bidding process, where selected companies were put in charge of financing, constructing, operating and maintaining waste management facilities. Also, district government will provide stipends depending on their operation conditions, to keep them profitable.

Once collected and sorted, the food waste is then processed by sending the waste to local composts, earthworm farms, and biodiesel companies, in the best cases, or sent to landfill and incineration sites. As you can imagine, even with the government’s proactive steps, and the formalization of these systems, challenges still remain.

Low Capability of Disposal vs Increasing Food Waste Production

Taking Shanghai as an example, daily food waste production in Shanghai has reached 1,800 tonne/day, while daily disposal capacity stopped at 1,000-1,200 tonne/day. It is claimed that, without regard to informal disposal, the difference of 600-800 tonne/ day will still go to landfill and incineration with proper pre-treatment. However, this gap would actually breed informal practices in the formal system, such as cross-district dumping or food waste sale.

The reason for low disposal capability lies not only in technology and financial support, but also in the inconsistency between waste amount reported by producers, which is the base of district infrastructure planning, and the actual amount generated.

Transparency and Process Gaps (Along the Value Chain)

Further complicating this is the fact that the entire system is rife with gaps in information, and therefore process, and this is allowing food waste to go “missing.” To combat this, districts have deployed information systems to ensure data consistency, however, as these procedures largely rely on manpower, leakage still occurs.

The Informal System

Underpinning this challenge is the fact that, like the informal collection plastic, paper, and other recyclables, the informal waste system for food waste is well established. It is a system that is able to efficiently separate food from oil, and includes a measure of processing that protects the pigs from eating harmful objects (metal, etc), but is closely linked to the challenges that the State is facing with food safety.

To overcome these challenges, while solving the challenge of manage Shanghai’s food waste, it will take a comprehensive plan to develop and execute the needed systems and to do this a number of interesting experiments and innovations are now underway. Experiments that, like the process for developing a carbon trading market, will lead to the development of a single system to be deployed nationwide.

Food Waste Collection

A Sample of Waste Management Experiments and Innovations

Policy Developments

Since the 12th five-year plan started in 2011, China has gradually implemented separate disposal of food waste, aiming at turning refuse into resources. Before expanding it to a national level, China first experimented in about 100 pilot cities, mapping out formal food waste collection and disposal systems. So far, Chinese food waste treatment still focuses on non-household food waste generated by restaurants and catering industry, due to the feature and large quantity of their food waste. Final products include fertilizer, soil amendments, biodiesel etc.

Circular Economy Industrial Parks

The circular economy industrial park is a comprehensive solution for solid waste, which integrates the whole industry chain and their resources to enhance disposal capability, efficiency and profitability. So far, seven circular economy industrial parks tackling solid waste has been operated.

Example: Linyi circular industrial park has integrated solid waste disposal, green energy supply (heating, biodiesel, and natural gas), sewage disposal, technology development and central control services.

Internet of Things

Another innovative solution, provided by Anhui Tianjian Environmental Protection Co., focuses on the fine and smart management of food waste system. This solution applies big data and “Internet of Things” technology, backed up by a comprehensive information system. For classification, it provides smart solid-oil-water separation facility. Food residual and oil will go to separate bins with “identity,” which will automatically and immediately record their weight, time and location in its system. Bins without “identity” will not be able to obtain oil. For collection and transportation, this system will track and record the vehicle. To regulate the whole process, data on waste will be transparency and updated in real time to the collection, disposal, and supervision entity.


With the leadership of many Soon-to-be megacities looking more and more to cities like Shanghai to understand how to build the systems they need to support their growing populations, we hope that you will continue to follow along with us as we research this important issue.

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