Eco-friendly tips for a zero waste life in Shanghai

Shanghai Living

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The zero waste lifestyle

When relocating across the world there are a million and one things to worry about—figuring out housing, battling through an unfamiliar language and guessing which bottle is soap and which bottle is bleach in the shop means all thoughts of the environmental impact of your choices go out of the window. This challenge is especially pronounced in Shanghai, where your plate and cup often come wrapped in one-use plastic, all of your water comes from plastic bottles that pile up in the trashcan and the very air you breathe often feels like a reminder of the futility of your personal actions on the environment.

There are, however, some simple steps you can take to minimize your impact, set an excellent example for your children and help build a cleaner world for them to inherit. Shanghai has a small but active zero waste community, who strive to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle by cutting their trash down to nothing. While a trash-free life is an almost impossible dream for a family facing the daily demands of childrearing, it is possible to reduce and be a part of a movement that aims to eradicate pollution in Shanghai and beyond.

Lisa van den Bos of ReVived is an active member of Shanghai’s zero waste community. She uses cute upcycling projects and classes to turn discarded items into beautiful objects, highlighting our trash problem in the process. We spoke to her about how families in the capital can use the six R’s—refuse, recycle, reduce, reuse, repair and rot—to cut down on waste and go green


The best way to deal with unnecessary waste, and the inevitable pollution it creates, is not to accumulate it in the first place. Many of the events—lectures, celebrations, balls, chamber events—that you end up at as an expat in Shanghai like to offer a goody bag at the end full of buttons, calendars, pens, stickers and other stuff you don’t really need. Refuse to take these—they will just clutter up your apartment until you inevitably throw them away in a year or so

One of the many treats of Shanghai life is the ease with which waimai is brought to your door—but getting takeaway means amassing a host of plastic boxes, disposable chopsticks and excessive wrapping just for one short meal. Eat out or go to collect your food instead, bringing your own reusable containers to save on the packaging

It’s also good to set out armed with your own reusable chopsticks, a water bottle, which can be filled up at water coolers throughout the city, and shopping bags. Straws are another big problem, with the 600 billion discarded annually contributing to the mountains of plastic waste that are pouring into our oceans, choking fish and entering the food chain. Refuse them, buy your own fun reusable straws or frequent Shanghai establishments like The Local who have gone straw-free (unless specifically requested).


Although in China garbage is not separated for recycling, that doesn’t mean recycling isn’t happening. While in the West recycling is generally thought of as something for our civic leaders to instigate, in China, recycling is a market-driven economic activity. China is the top destination for imported waste, with 7.4million tons of discarded plastic making its way here from Europe in 2010—that’s 87 percent of Europe’s exported plastic.

China’s recycling industry employs more people than any other except agriculture, although often on an informal, anonymous basis. Those people you see cycling through the hutongs dragging trailers piled high with recyclables are actually responsible for collecting over 90 percent of the plastic bottles Shanghai discards. Make life a bit easier for Shanghai’s army of informal recyclers: keep your plastic bottles—from water, shampoo or food—and also your paper, cardboard and packaging.

Separate out plastics and papers so the paper recyclables don’t get wet and put these bags next to your compound’s garbage cans to make them easy for recyclers to collect.


With everything you buy think twice about whether you really need it—adding unnecessary stuff to your life leads to a cluttered home, puts you out of pocket and contributes to growing piles of landfill waste when those unwanted items eventually get discarded.

ms eventually get discarded. Studies have shown that when we go plastic for purchases we buy more and spend impulsively—so WeChat, which dematerializes money to the mere wisp of a scan, is bad news for cutting down on useless stuff. Carry cash; the physical act of handing over the payment may make you reconsider.

Make use of a shopping list, and when you shop online put things in your basket for a few days to mull them over., the English language translation of Taobao, has a handy wish list function which can give you time to change your mind.

It isn’t just our piles of material goods that impact the world around us: go further by reducing your use of resources. As our cracked skin that leaves us constantly reaching for the lip balm indicates, Shanghai is an arid place and water here is scarce. While a long, hot shower is warming in the winter and several dousings a day can feel like the only way to deal with the summer sun, consider the distance your water has had to travel and keep the taps turned off. You can also collect some of your excess shower water with a bucket, which can later be used to flush the toilet. For a fuss-free way to cut down your water wastage, try installing low-flow faucets that restrict your water pressure to save up to 50 percent of usage.


Shanghai is a great place to be when your favorite pair of boots finally give way—getting things repaired in the capital is much easier than in your typical Western city. While the cost of repairing a much-loved item can sometimes be almost as much as buying new, the savings are passed on the environment, and you also get to enjoythe warm glow that comes from supporting small neighborhood businesses and rescuing a well-loved item with plenty of memories attached to it.

Rather than taking your tattered items to the local sewing expert, for simple jobs you could try learning to fix them yourself. Pick up a sewing machine and make a fun family project out of smartening up your old clothes.


Food waste is a huge problem in China—with a culture of feasting meaning a third of all food wastage occurs at the table. Predicting how much food is going to be eaten with temperamental toddlers in the house is an impossibility, but you can put that waste to good use with a simple home composting system—even if you don’t have a garden. You can then use that homemade compost to fertilize a windowsill herb garden, teaching your kids some horticultural know-how in the process.

Done correctly, an indoors compost bin will be successful and smell-free. You’ll need to pick up a container with a lid —a plastic bin would work—a tray to put underneath your container, some soil and some newspaper. Once you have your container, punch some holes in the bottom and top for ventilation. Place the newspaper onto the tray, and your container onto that. Add some soil into your compost bin to get things started, and then a layer of newspaper. If you have the space, having a container of shredded newspaper and a container of soil next to your compost bin will make things more convinient.

Once your compost bin is all set up you can start adding food scraps when dinners go unfinished—it’s best to keep the bits as small as possible. It’s important to keep the balance between wet and dry ingredients, so add some newspaper when you add wet food waste. If your compost starts to smell it means the balance is off— add more newspaper or holes to the bin. Once a week you’ll need to give it a stir and add another handful of soil.


With Shanghai’s large population of relatively transient expats it’s always easy to pick up second hand goods. Anything from clothes to furniture, homewares to stationary can be bought and sold in WeChat groups.

Rifle through clothes from those heading home, or offload your own worldly goods before repatriation.


While reducing your consumption is the aim, making informed and careful choices when you do need go shopping can be equally as helpful.

Chemicals on crops aren’t just bad for human health—China’s overreliance on pesticides and herbicides has also led to massive soil degradation issues, with more than 40 percent of China’s arable land classified as degraded, meaning the soil is less able to support crops. Soil pollution coupled with the world’s largest (and growing) population and a desertification problem that’s racing along at a loss of one percent of arable land annually means that, unless action is taken now, a food scarcity crisis is brewing in China. Support your family’s health and positive farming practices by shopping thoughtfully.

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