With Spring Festival finally over, a deluge of delayed deliveries finally showed up on my doorstep. it was great fun opening them all, especially as some had been ordered so long ago I no longer remembered what I was getting. My excitement prompted my wife to observe that she finally understood Taobao addiction: it’s like Christmas every time a parcel arrives.
However my excitement was tempered by an uncomfortable awareness of how much packaging I was throwing away. I have recently been writing and editing articles for our forthcoming March issue, with the theme of sustainable living, and I have been amazed and ashamed by the extraordinary ways in which many in Beijing’s international community are changing their lifestyles to minimize waste. When I’d opened everything, I stacked up my purchases, then alongside and dwarfing them, the mountain of packaging they came in:
A glance at the picture will show that most of the goodies are edible, imported items which can’t be obtained at the local supermarket. However this picture has tempered my enthusiasm for Taobao, and caused me to think again before I click “加入购物车.”
It’s also induced in me a slight sense of despair. I try to reduce the waste I generate, begging baristas not to put my coffee in a plastic bag with a plastic stirrer and a little plastic container of milk which I’m not going to use. But often they do it anyway, doggedly ignoring my protestations. And I don’t even know how to ask our local pizza parlor to stop putting a pair of plastic gloves in with our delivery every single week.
Of course I know what the real answer is. But I think I’m too weak and selfish to give up coffee on the go and pizza to the door, and proper British tea from Taobao. Why can’t my host country adapt its entire culture to allow me my self-indulgent Western lifestyle without guilt?
It is, of course, deeply unfair to expect China to change its ways, when Europe and America have enjoyed decades of throwaway lifestyles, and it’s our mess which is choking the world. Unfortunately, though this doesn’t stop the world from choking. Like many other families, we watched in horror the sequences in Blue Planet 2 showing marine animals feeding their young plastic and pollutants, and vowed to start making some changes.
China’s leadership is beginning to get to grips with the problem, having recently stopped taking in shipments of unrecyclable waste from abroad, forcing the US to start to face its own garbage problem. And small steps can make a big difference. Shops (and shoppers) in the UK long resisted a mandatory charge for plastic grocery bags, but when it was finally introduced no one stopped shopping, and bag usage fell by 85 percent.
I know I too can’t outsource my rubbish responsibilities to China, and will need to start making changes myself. But some public awareness would help, if only to prevent the baffled stares when I refuse a plastic straw. It’s not impossible: in the Philippines and Cambodia recently we were delighted to be given bamboo straws with our drinks, and both are less developed countries than China. Perhaps CCTV could screen Blue Planet 2…
Photos: Design for Health via Flickr, Andrew Killeen