For study and work reasons, I regularly spend time in China. Most of 2014 I was based in Beijing, but I also stayed in other places, including a whole month in tropical Xishuangbanna. It was the first time for me to live in China with less plastic. At first, I was discouraged by the vast amounts of plastic everywhere. Thankfully, I soon realized that it actually isn’t so hard to find creative plastic-free solutions. Based on my experience, here are some tips for living with less plastic in China.
Drinking water: Find a vending machine or get a water dispenser
For drinking water, if you live in a compound, there is a big chance that there is a purified water vending machine. It is super easy to use. You just bring your bottle, open the little door, place a water vessel under the tap, put in some coins, press the start button and voilà! Clean, filtered tap water. It’s the cheapest option and plastic-free. If there is not such a vending machine in your area, get a water dispenser with refillable water jars that you order by telephone. Because the bottles are refilled, the plastic impact is smaller than bottles you can get at the supermarket.
Fruit and veggies: #BringYourOwnBag and ask!
Organic veggies and vegetables that are not wrapped in plastic are very hard to find. In Beijing, you might find some at the Farmers Market (北京有机农夫市集). At the Sanyuanli market (三源里市场) there is a saleswoman that sells organic produce. You find her in the very back of the market.
When buying fruit and vegetables, sales staff will always put your products in a plastic bag. If you buy just one or a few items (e.g. one or two carrots, one apple), ask them to put the price tag, if any, straight on the product instead of using plastic bags for this purpose.
For bigger shopping sprees, make sure to #BringYourOwn produce bags. In Chinese, tell the shop attendant “I don’t want a plastic bag” = 我不要袋子 (wǒ bú yào dàizi) and offer your own bag at the same time. If you don’t speak Chinese, bring along a small card with this text in Chinese.
Because salespersons are so used to put products in a plastic bag, it is common that you have to repeat your message multiple times before they realize you really do not want a plastic bag. Bringing your own bag to put your produce in is an exception in China.
In general, markets are the best place to shop plastic free. Try to find a market in your neighborhood. If you can’t find one, ask around. Always bring your own shopping bags and plenty of smaller bags to put the fresh produce in.
Often, especially in the case of fruit, products are wrapped in plastic after arrival in the store. To get certain products plastic-free, ask the staff of the store to save some unpackaged fruit for you. I used to do this for avocados.
Shop in bulk at grocery stores
You can find nuts, beans, rice, wheat, dried fruit, certain spices in bulk in the bigger grocery stores or at the local market. #BringYourOwnBag or jars. If you buy meat, bring your own container.
In Beijing, baking powder in cardboard boxes is available at expat stores (e.g. Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet). Vinegar is widely available in glass bottles.
In general, people in China are very cooperative when it comes to meeting your plastic-free ambitions. I find that Chinese people are much more flexible in terms of accommodating my plastic-free habits than in the Netherlands or Sweden. Everything is possible, just ask.