I know. Having the words “China” and “eco-friendly” in the same sentence seems sort of oxymoronic. Unlike back in the land of Northern California where plastic bottles are banned and recycling bins are bigger than the trash cans, there’s not much societal pressure or government infrastructure here to encourage conservation. One might easily assume that it would be hard for me to go green. But as Earth Day approaches, I’ve been reflecting on how, in many ways, living here has actually made me more eco-friendly. By simply attempting to survive in a foreign land, I’ve developed quite a few habits that just so happen to be environmentally-friendly as well.
Here are just a few examples:
1. I reuse everything and conserve what I have.
I wash and reuse plastic freezer bags until they tear. I ration bags of chocolate chips so they can last a year. I give my boys a quota of only three sheets of printer paper a day for their art projects.
Why? Because replenishing my pantry or my craft supplies is not as easy as a trip to Costco or Target. Although hard-to-find items are becoming more readily available here, it can take a half-day trip to the wholesale market, or a frustrating evening trying to navigate online shopping in a second language. Instead of assuming that resources are unlimited or easily available, I assume they are not.
Survival goal: Avoid the stress, expense, and energy required to restock
Side benefit: Less consumption of resources
2. I don’t always flush after I pee.
Living in a first floor apartment, we deal with plumbing problems every few months or so. To avoid clogs and plumbers fees, we have adopted several strategies: When several of us have to pee, we take turns and only flush after we’ve all relieved ourselves. And if the pipes are really backed up, we follow the mantra, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”
These might not be the most sanitary solutions, but we haven’t had to call the plumber in over a year.
Survival goal: Don’t back up the drains and flood the house
Side benefit: Water conservation
3. I limit my use of appliances.
The wiring in my home cannot handle too much electricity without tripping a circuit breaker. We can’t use a space heater along with the microwave, or the dryer at the same time as the washer. On really hot days, my family tries to gather in one room so that we only have to turn on one air-conditioner. Most of my appliances have to be energy-efficient or I won’t be able to use them, and there are many household machines (like the dishwasher) that I simply do without.
Survival goal: Don’t blow the fuse
Side benefit: Energy conservation
4. I don’t change my clothes every day.
It’s common for people here to wear the same outfit for several days in a row. Although this is slowly changing, in the past, most people did not have the economic means to buy heaps of clothes, nor an efficient way to launder them. Even now, university students living in dorms have to wash their clothes by hand. No local family I know owns a dryer. Although we have both a washer and (more recently) a dryer, we have adopted this liberating habit of re-wearing our outfits.
Survival goal: Adapt to societal norms
Side benefit: Less water consumption and water waste
5. I eat less meat and animal products.
Unlike in our summers back in the States when we gorge ourselves on hamburgers, hot dogs, and prime rib all summer, we eat a lot less meat here—especially beef. The typical meal consists of a lot of vegetables with thinly sliced pieces of meat. A single chicken breast can feed a whole family.
With meat and seafood, I can also never be 100% sure of what I’m getting. Is that donkey meat mixed in with the ground pork? Is the shrimp farmed in toxic waste water? You just never know.
Survival goal: Save money, eat what the locals eat, and avoid food poisoning
Side benefit: Reduction of carbon emissions, consumption of resources, and waste caused by animal agriculture
6. I don’t buy food in bulk.
Many families here shop for fresh groceries daily instead of stocking up. This is made possible by the fact that almost every neighborhood has a nearby market that sells everything from bread to bananas, live chickens to preserved meats, nuts to noodles. Without a large refrigerator or deep freezer to hold food in bulk, I end up buying less food, but more regularly, so less of my food goes bad.
Survival goal: Only buy what can I fit in my tiny fridge
Side benefit: Reduce food waste and emission of methane gases from decomposing landfills
7. I freely give and take hand-me-downs.
Quality products like children’s clothes, toys, and baby products are hard to find, or more expensive here than in the States. As a result, those in the expat community hand down imported or expensive items many times over before ever throwing anything out. We were the third proud owners of the highly-coveted plastic slide our friends’ brought over 15 years ago. Half our furniture used to belong to someone else. And 90% my kids’ wardrobe consists of hand-me-downs… although I did decide to pass on those pairs of second-hand underwear.
Survival goal: Acquire quality import items for free
Side benefit: Extend the life of products while reducing waste
8. I rarely shop for clothes.
International brands are more expensive here than in the States, and local brands are too bedazzled for my taste. On top of that, although I’d be considered a petite medium back home, here I would be an XL. Consequently, I have avoided shopping here, and as a result, my wardrobe has generally stayed the same for the past decade. I guess I’ll just have to wait until my retro looks come back in fashion before moving back to America.
Survival goal: Avoid the cost, shame, and stress of shopping
Side benefit: Less waste from textile production and disposal of clothing
9. I don’t drive.
Anyone who has visited this part of the world will know that the driving rules are quite different from the States. As in: there are no rules. Cars can abruptly stop in the middle of the road, drivers can back up on the freeway if they miss their exit, and vehicles can often be found chasing people off pedestrian sidewalks. As a result, we have chosen not to own a car. Instead, we get around by foot, taxi, ridesharing, bus, and bike.
Survival goal: Avoid the cost and stress of driving
Side benefit: Reduce fuel consumption and air pollution
10. I live in a small space.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size of a single-family house built in 2015 was 2,467 square feet. In contrast, single-family homes in our city of over 11 million are rare and reserved for only the uber-rich. The large majority of people live in apartment buildings, which require fewer resources per household to build and maintain.
Our own three-bedroom apartment is less than 1300 square feet. We have no sprawling backyard, garage, or walk-in closet. With limited (storage) space, becoming minimalist is more of a necessity than a choice. Whether it’s clothes, furniture, or a new toy, we always have to consider whether there’s room for it, and since the answer to that is usually “No,” that limits our spending and hoarding.
Survival goal: Learn to live in local housing
Side benefit: Less consumption of resources and energy, smaller carbon footprint
* * *
Ok, so I realize that these eco-friendly habits of mine are perhaps lacking in mindfulness and intentionality. My accidental (and incidental) conservationism often has to do more with just trying to make do than with caring for the environment; not to mention the issue of some questionable health and hygiene practices.
But all that aside, I do believe that living abroad has made me a more conscientious member of planet Earth. It has forced me to shed some of the blatant consumerism that I grew up with. It has challenged my American obsession with image, comfort, and convenience. It has offered other lifestyle choices that are counter-cultural to me, but are actually more green. It has taught me a little bit about what it’s like to live in solidarity with the people of this nation. And it has exposed my cultural hypocrisy and arrogance when I complain and point fingers about the myriad of China’s environmental problems while America continues to be one of the top nations in meat consumption, food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and consumption of natural resources. That’s not even taking into consideration what will happen to environmental initiatives in the States now that Trump is president.
Yes, China still has a long way to go, but I’ve been seeing signs of hope: the reduction of plastic bags, the recycle bins that have just appeared in my apartment complex, the increasing popularity of hybrid cars and electric buses. My city has instituted a policy that limits the number of cars on the road each day based on license plate numbers. Last year, it also began to use natural gas instead of coal to fuel the public heating. While this nation continues to take baby steps (and hopefully not-so-baby-steps) to curb pollution and become more eco-friendly, I plan to do the same—hopefully this time, not so accidentally.