Clear Your Plate For The Planet
April 9, 2014

Clear Your Plate For The Planet

We all know that on a global scale there’s not enough food to go round, yet some of us throw away enough food to feed a hungry pack of gibbons. Food waste is a global problem and reducing it is a major issue for many countries. Last year, China introduced the “Clear Your Plate” or “Operation Empty Plate” campaign. This was a bit like a monumental, nationwide version of your mother telling you to finish your greens – if you don’t eat your veg and clean your plate, you don’t get your pud. You know the sort of thing. And, wouldn’t you just guess, it all started with some bloke and a bit of social media posturing on weibo, China’s version of Twitter which has over 400 million registered users.

I try not to waste food, I really do, but like most people, there’s always something that gets missed in the back of the fridge, something that goes all technicolor and gooey. The very worst episode for me was back in the 90s when a banana killed my camera. On a short break to Paris, I had been carrying my old beloved Pentax Spotmatic SLR camera in a small backpack. On the last morning, I liberated a banana from the measly “continental” hotel breakfast and stuffed it in the pack, just in case I fancied a nibble on the way home. As I hadn’t taken any shots with the new film in the camera and it was winter, I didn’t need the camera for ages when I returned. Lazily, I never emptied the backpack. I forgot all about the banana until I went to get the Pentax weeks later. I can’t describe the smell,other than to say it was a sort of sickly sweet poison aroma that welcomed me as I opened the bag. Thick grey filaments of mould or growth of some kind had spread everywhere including the insides of the Spotmatic. It was a write-off.

As always, things are on a bigger scale in China. When Mr. Xu Zhijun posted a picture of himself with an empty plate on weibo, he never expected it to lead to a national campaign. He was just responding to what he saw as a criminal amount of wasted food all around him in Beijing. Coming from a rural background in the rice paddies of Jiangsu province, he had been taught to value food. Working in the capital as a journalist, he was horrified to see how much food was left after meals in restaurants. He discovered that the food wasted by Beijing students alone could feed 10 million people a year so he posted his now famous empty plate picture as part of his clear your plate campaign.

As social media trends go it was a slow grower until it was seen and endorsed by the new leader of the Communist Party, Mr. Xi Jinping. When Xi commented, “These wasteful habits must stop immediately,” people took notice. Well, you would wouldn’t you? The campaign hit front page on The People’s Daily and was featured as a top story on the state TV channel. Xi’s battle against corruption and excess in government circles, as typified by lavish banquets, had a new focus. Extravagant banquets are now frowned upon and even banned in some circles, to be replaced by simple buffets. Restaurants are serving smaller meals and portions and there are moves to develop food scrap recycling systems.

It’s a big win for Mr. Xu and Mr. Xi and another example of the power of social media. While weibo and its competitors are tightly controlled, China’s leaders are aware of the power of these sites to move and shape opinion and this is a great example of that power in action.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Digg Reddit Stumbleupon Email


Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

Send Eric an email