Can’t Wait for a Clean Plate — China’s Admirable Clean Plate Campaign

As restaurants in China are opening, the government has enacted a food waste program.

“Shocking and distressing” is an apt description for the entirety of 2020, but on August 11 Chinese President Xi Jinping used the phrase to describe China’s staggering levels of food waste. In a national call for Chinese citizens to finish every meal with a “clean plate,” Xi’s announcement launched a bold campaign against a Chinese culture of food consumption that has long preferred excess. Despite short-term economic and social drawbacks, the Clean Plate Campaign reaffirms a series of commitments that attest to the strength and scope of the country’s commitments to a more sustainable future.

The Chinese love to over-order. Public outings often feature dozens of dishes and spirited conversation, but much food remains untouched by the end of each meal. China’s first attempts to curb its food waste came in 2013 when annual food waste topped 50 million tons: enough to feed 200 million people for an entire year. Rather than targeting the general public, the 2013 “Operation Empty Plate” campaign focused on reducing food waste at banquets and receptions held by government agencies. In subsequent years, decreasing food waste numbers accompanied lulls in government-sponsored messaging, but food consumption habits remained unsustainable—the country’s 17 million tons of food waste in 2015 could have still fed an additional 30-50 million. Such staggering wastage begets economic and ethical detriments. Though comfortable food and drink are Chinese cultural symbols of success, excessive food-wasting deserves to be trashed.

Xi seems to agree. The 2020 Clean Plate Campaign comes as the COVID-19 pandemic tests global food supplies and stir-crazy civilians flock to restaurants after months in quarantine. According to the Chinese government, China is over the pandemic and, for many, the Clean Plate Campaign signals a new beginning. Restaurants feature smaller takeout portions, encourage diners to pack leftovers for home, and promote mindful dining practices through signage and verbal reminders. Select cities have adopted an “N-1” policy that recommends diners subtract one from their party to determine the number of dishes to order. The campaign targets small sacrifices that encourage sustainability and discourage excess. Both are sensible requests in light of a pandemic that has taught the world a heavy lesson in sustainable consumption.

The Clean Plate Campaign, however, is not without its short-term ramifications. August saw select commodity prices climb as some took to social media to protest smaller portions with unchanged prices. Most now criticize eating vloggers who record and indulge in lavish shows of food consumption; on August 12, Douyin, Tiktok’s Chinese counterpart, announced its decision to censor videos that feature food-wasting. Only time will betray the evolution of these short-term effects. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the Chinese population have taken the Clean Plate Campaign in stride.

Most importantly, the Clean Plate Campaign signals China’s renewed commitment to sustainable development. On the heels of his August 13 announcement of the Clean Plate campaign, Xi declared that China would “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060” in a September 22 speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Such an unprecedented commitment to global sustainability (China’s current carbon emissions match the combined total of the United States, European Union, and India) echoes the same boldness required to institute the Clean Plate Campaign. China’s impressive strides in sustainability warrant great international attention—the Clean Plate Campaign is just one facet of China’s efforts to pioneer a more sustainable future.

As Chinese people doff their masks and ease back into long-overdue public outings, they have found ubiquitous “Clean Plate” messaging and slight alterations to everyday food consumption. At a time when “crisis” evokes COVID-19 and “numbers” mean cases and deaths for much of the world, the Chinese find themselves flattening another curve: the food waste of its some 1.3 billion citizens. It’s an admirable undertaking. And so far, it’s working.

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Photo via STR/AFP via Getty Images

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