Breaking Up With Plastic in China

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ditching plastic in china

Alright, so there are some places where it’s totally easy to avoid using plastic…. And then there’s China- a country so reliant on single-use plastics, that it’s not uncommon to see a woman double wrap her apple in a plastic bag, and then sit down and eat it not even five minutes later.

To be fair, like many throughout the rest of the world, Chinese people just don’t know any better, and it’s not necessarily their fault. It’s mostly just a really, bad, terrible, awful habit… Kind of like taking drunken self-monologues on your snapchat every time you drink tequila. Both are useless and unhealthy behaviors, but with a little self-awareness and conscious action, both are easily avoidable.

The first thing we noticed about China was how accessible things were. The second was how accessibility came shrink in wrapped in plastic. Breaking up with single-use plastics here is not exactly rocket science, but we’d be lying if we said it isn’t challenging and frustrating at times. Here are our steps for reducing and hopefully eliminating your plastic footprint while traveling in China.

1. Plan ahead and invest in some reusable dishware!

If you’re traveling through China, you can anticipate that 90% of what you consume will come in plastic, so it’s absolutely crucial that you come prepared. We suggest stashing your own takeaway containers in your purse or backpack so that when you get a craving for some street food, you’re prepared. Things like noodles, baozi, jiaozi, wraps, and even those beloved milk teas ALL come in single-use plastic. Now obviously, it’s not exactly feasible to carry around a full dining room set of dishes in your backpack, so we suggest finding one container that is either multipurpose or collapsible so that it functions well and packs up small.

Collapsible Bowl:

If you’re a coffee addict, you might also want to invest in a reusable coffee mug ( These work well for both coffee AND milk teas!

Additionally, you’re going to want a straw. We prefer stainless steel straws, but bamboo straws work fine too. These double as stirrers for smoothies and questionable mixed drinks at KTV, and also are usually wide enough to suck up the tapioca balls in your milk tea! We like to keep our straws in a case that can double as a utensil case too. While there’s no shortage of chopsticks available in China, they all come wrapped in plastic, so we carry our own. You can buy super cute cutlery kits on Etsy, but we chose to make our own using a long pencil case. It holds a fork, knife, spoon, Chinese soup spoon, chopsticks, and our straws.

Above all else, the most important item to invest in is a water bottle. In a country where it’s not advised to drink water from the tap, we feel that this is single-handedly the most important item you can invest in. There are so many options for reusable water bottles, but we really love our insulated bottles because they keep water cool for ridiculously long periods of time. Or hot… you know if you’re into that sort of thing.

Kleen Kanteen:

2. BYOB-Bring your own bag

Grocery shopping is easily one of the most challenging parts about avoiding plastics in China. Pretty much all your produce is likely to have some sort of plastic packaging, so this one is can be a little challenging. The first step is to bring your own bag.

Invest in some reusable produce bags, and if you can’t find any (because you’re in China) make some! It’s super easy to make your own bag using old t-shirts and a pair of scissors.

ditching plastic in china

Although China actually charges money for each bag that you need from the supermarket, this does not apply to the bags used for produce, nuts, meats, and eggs, which are way more wasteful than the ones for purchase during check out. You use them one time to transport your groceries home, and that’s it… then it’s into the trash. It’s silly. Get yourself some reusable produce bags and bring them with you when you go to the store! We also advise keeping a few in your bag with you whenever you go somewhere for last minute pop-ins to the supermarket.

3. Use your translator

China’s plastic footprint is bad, like real bad- but like we said, they just don’t know any better. With this in mind, you can anticipate some confusion when you try to communicate that you don’t want a bag/chopsticks/straw/etc. Unless you’re fluent in Chinese, “bu yao dai zi” might not cut it. Don’t let language get in the way of reducing your single-use plastics! In our experience, most Chinese people are actually super intrigued as to why you won’t just take the bloody bag, so we always recommend using this as a teaching moment.

Using your translator, respectfully translate why you’re doing it this way. We find that using Google Translate is the best app for this because it works offline, and is super easy to use, plus there’s a talking input and output feature, which keeps communication quick! We’ve heard that these translations aren’t always the most accurate though, so bear that in mind! There’s no need to get too into detail here (unless they really want it).

Here are some recommendations of quick and easy phrases to translate that get the point across!

  • No thank you, plastic is bad for the environment
  • No thank you, I am trying to save our planet
  • Plastic is wasteful. I brought my own bags

4. Know your area

This is something that’s easier done when you stay in one place for an extended period of time but is totally possible nonetheless. When you’re traveling, keep your eyes peeled for restaurants that don’t have plastic wrapped table sets. (Include picture). Opt to eat there, or grab some street food using your reusable containers!

You should also aim to shop local. Most of the time the local shops don’t have their produce wrapped in plastic, so drop yourself a pin as a reminder for the next time you want to pick up some snacks/groceries.

If you just keep your eyes out while you go about your day, you’re bound to see there are tons of places available to help you cut back on single use plastics. You may not be able to get everything you want from one place, but that’s okay. Stay vigilant and be patient, this gets easier with time!

ditching plastic in china

5. Scout for water

Going zero-waste with water is SO much easier than people think. Like anything else with reducing plastic, it just takes planning ahead. Firstly, you should always be carrying a reusable bottle with you… seriously, if you don’t have one GO GET ONE. But refilling it can be tricky in China, as the Chinese culture prefers to drink hot water, meaning that they drink from the tap and use a kettle to kill all the germs. We’ve done this in desperate times, but find that it still tastes awful and takes like 24 hours to cool down in our insulated bottles…not ideal.

So we typically opt for going thirsty until we can find a water tank. Sometimes it’s harder than we’d like to admit, but 9 times out of 10, we’re able to find something quickly. If there is a water jug, most businesses will keep them in the storefronts, making them easy to see. Simply pop in and use your translator to ask nicely if you can have some water. Show your water bottle, and offer to pay them in you must. We’ve never actually had to pay anyone for water this way, but it’s always a nice gesture to ask anyway.

Here are some places that are pretty much guaranteed to have water jugs:

  • Schools
  • Hotels
  • Gyms

Remember to always be respectful when doing this, and when you find these places, drop yourself a pin for the next time you’re running low on H2O!

ditching plastic in china

6. Break up with Elema and Tao Bao

GASP. All the expats in the room are shocked.

Okay, but seriously though… this has got to be by far the most wasteful habits ever.  Now we’re not perfect people, and we love Tao Bao and the convenience of ordering in as much as the next person, but yikes… have you ever seen how much plastic is used on a Tao Bao order? Like, no thanks I only ordered earrings… I did not need them to be quadruple wrapped for safe passage, and then shoved in a box, which comes wrapped in a plastic shipping bag.

We know it’s cheap and highly addictive… but just don’t. If you need something, GO SHOPPING… which is way more fun, and has instant gratification written all over it. There are literally shopping malls on every major road in China, and chances are you can find what you want there, without the disappointment of finding your package swimming in plastic and being four sizes too small.

ditching plastic in china

If you’re hungry and you don’t want to cook… grab some street food! We have yet to find a country with better street food than China, and that’s no joke. Take out food is notorious for being one of the biggest plastic polluters, so if you want to ditch single-use plastics, you’re going to have to break up with your dependency on convenience.

7. Make someones day

Not many know this, but China has been running the biggest recycling program on the planet for the past fifteen plus years. But the days of China being the global dumping grounds are over.  As of early 2018, China is refusing plastic waste from other countries. This means that the locals who profit from recyclable waste are in a pinch and are thirsty for your single-use plastic.

Should you be unable to avoid purchasing items that come in plastic bottles or cartons with plastic lids- have no fear, because chances are there’s a local in your community who will gladly take them off your hands and sell them back to manufacturers for a profit.  We’re not kidding… we’ve tested this theory and within ten seconds of putting out plastic we’ve accumulated, it was picked up.

Within each apartment community, there are countless people who literally spend their days sifting through dumpsters and pulling out recyclables. Additionally, every street in Chinese cities has an appointed sweeper who maintains the cleanliness of the area. We’re not exactly sure of the system here, but we do know that they are QUICK to pick up recyclable items.

ditching plastic in china

It’s worth mentioning that these folks are often quite picky and will not accept all that you put out. For these reasons we definitely urge you to always reduce your consumption first, and not rely on recycling as an excuse for convenience.

Final Thoughts

Ditching single-use plastic is like breaking up with a psycho ex… it’s always a little more challenging than you’d like to admit, but in the end, you’re likely to feel free and proud of what you’ve accomplished. Remember that no one is perfect, and you’re definitely bound for some challenges- but the work is worth the payout. More nature- more bounty- more beauty- more happy. 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Breaking Up With Plastic in China”

  1. Having just been to China I really struggled with this too! Plastic wrapped in plastic wrapped in plastic, so unnecessary. They often seemed offended when we’d ask for it without plastic bag or to use our own containers. I really hope some education happens over there, as with a population that huge the impact they’re having is massive!

    • Yeah sometimes it definitely does feel like you’re being offensive by declining a bag, chopsticks, etc. But having spent almost three years in China, we’ve learned that it’s just a cultural difference in approach. The concept of plastic pollution is still SO foreign to most of China, and they’re not great at expressing confusion (the language barrier doesn’t help either!). We found that revisiting the same places definitely helps! We’re thibking of getting some ethically sourced t-shirts made that simply explain plastic pollution and good alternatives but in chinese characters! Silly… but it would save a bunch of time on Google Translate and we would totally rock those! Haha


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