The “Clear Your Plate” campaign in China: No leftovers

The term “clear your plate” appeared as a new expression in China in the last few years. It means that the food on plates is eaten up, and nothing is left. These days more and more chinese believe that when going out for a meal, being thrifty is as important as the quality of the food.

The "Clear Your Plate" campaign in China

Contributing Reporter
Xie Suelin
“Waitress, may I have a box, please?” At a restaurant in Beijing, Wang Zhiyue is carefully packing the leftovers after a meal out with friends. “I order food according to the number of people at table. If there is any food left, I’ll take it home.” These days more and more people believe that when going out for a meal, being thrifty is as important as the quality of the food. There is now a special new name for the people who, like Wang Zhiyue, do not discard leftovers, i.e. the “clear your plate” group.

“Clear Your Plate” catching on quickly

The term “clear your plate” appeared as a new expression in China in the last few years. It means that the food on plates is eaten up, and nothing is left. The “clear your plate” campaign was started by a small Beijing non-profit group, the members of which came from all walks of life. They popularized the slogan “Start from me, no leftovers on the plate today”. They called themselves the IN_33 group. Gradually the public grew to recognize and support their proposition and came up with the name “clear your plate”.

In order to deliver the message of “clear your plate” to as many people as possible, the members of IN_33 do not only send out messages on Weibo (MicroBlog) and WeChat, but also hand out flyers and put up posters at restaurants and petrol stations in every part of Beijing. They also put up information signs in busy parks and on streets where a lot of people congregate and pass through.

“Worldwide, more than a billion people go hungry. On average 10 million people in the world die of starvation every year, and every six seconds a child dies of hunger. If we reduce our daily food waste by 5%, we can save more than 4 million starving people!” This is what is written on the flyers made by IN_33 and these words draw people’s attention to the food on their plates, and thus become aware of reducing food waste.

“I imagined that a lot of people would support this campaign, but I would not have imagined that it would be that many people.”

“I imagined that a lot of people would support this campaign, but I would not have imagined that it would be that many people”, said Jiao Huijuan, one of the founders of the movement. In many restaurants, waiters and waitresses now help promote the “clear your plate” campaign by putting up posters, or directly inserting their flyers in the menus.

Influenced by the movement, more and more people are joining the “clear your plate” campaign. Wang Zhiyue, persuaded by what she witnessed when having a meal at a restaurant, has become a loyal supporter of the “clear your plate” movement. She has also noticed that such campaign is now often seen in restaurants. “Clear your plate” campaign has gradually become en vogue.

From frugality to “banquet waste”

As a matter of fact, the sense of frugality and economy is not at all in fashion among Chinese people.

The consistent subtle influence at home has made it easy for Wang Zhiyue to accept the “clear your plate” concept. She said, “My grandfather would always say that silence cultivates your character, and frugality cultivates your morals.” Wang Zhiyue’s grandfather went to a private school as a little boy where he received traditional Chinese education that lauds Chinese culture for living in a diligent and thrifty way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a common practice in a family for the younger children to wear clothes passed down from the older ones. Rarely would you see food being wasted at table. One reason was that food was in short supply at that time, and the other was the continuing influence of the frugality tradition.

Wang Zhiyue also said, “My grandfather practiced what he preached and lived a frugal life himself. He also instilled a sense of frugality in my father and uncles. The conditions have improved for our generation, and we tend to neglect good traditions sometimes, but never ever should we forget the good concepts.” Therefore, every time when Wang Zhiyue overhears volunteers suggesting customers at restaurant order an appropriate portion of food, and take leftovers home, she feels like that she is somehow back to the world with familiar and good traditions.

“My grandfather practiced what he preached and lived a frugal life himself. He also instilled a sense of frugality in my father and uncles. The conditions have improved for our generation, and we tend to neglect good traditions sometimes, but never ever should we forget the good concepts.”

Banquet is an essential part of life in China. Whether it is a wedding reception, a birthday party, or a gathering with friends, there will be a lot of food on the table. Various banquets may add much excitement to people’s life, and strengthen the interpersonal relationships. The custom of having more than enough food at table is considered a demonstration of wealth and generosity. In order to be good hosts, they tend to prepare a lot more food than actually needed as they believe that only in that way guests would be treated well and satisfied. From the time of food shortages at the beginning of the New China to the gradual increase in prosperity following the reform and opening-up policy, banquets have become increasingly hearty. Meanwhile “banquets with leftovers” have become a very common practice.

It’s reported that about 200 billion yuan worth of food is wasted in China every year. The food wasted can be used to feed more than 200 million people for a year, which is really shocking.

The "Clear Your Plate" campaign in China

The return of frugality

After learning about these phenomena and figures from the media, people have gradually come to realize the severity of the food waste. Like the non-profit organization IN_33, individuals as well as restaurants have also started series of campaigns to dissuade people from wasting food.

Some restaurants have started to offer special menus with small portions, promotions with rewards given for taking away leftovers, and abolished minimal consumption regulations. Buffet restaurants, in order to reduce waste, encourage the customers to pay a “clean your plate” deposit before the meal which will be returned afterwards if there is little waste of food.

“These campaigns are good reminders to us”, said Liu Xiaofeng who often dines out. “It is not that I don’t want to save food, it is that it often slips my mind. If not being reminded, I tend to forget to can.”

The results of the campaigns are very noticeable. “Garbage in the kitchen has been reduced by one third”, said the owner of a restaurant which runs the “clean your plate” deposit campaign, “and waste at restaurant has been reduced effectively as well.” Such economizing campaigns have also earned the support from the government. Last year, the government clearly proposed the “Eight Regulations and Six Bans”, half of which are concerned with fighting extravagance and promoting frugality and practicability. This has greatly encouraged the “clear your plate” group in China.

“China is an agricultural country. I hope, by promoting food saving we will make the practice of frugality and economy become one deep-rooted part in people’s life, and hence certain resources will be saved.”

“It is not just a matter of treasuring food, but also a matter of respecting people’s labor”, said one of the earliest supporters of the “clear your plate” movement when talking about his original intention to participate in. “China is an agricultural country. I hope, by promoting food saving we will make the practice of frugality and economy become one deep-rooted part in people’s life, and hence certain resources will be saved.”

Since China’s reform and opening-up, the abundance of materials has reached a level that is higher than ever before, but the per capita recourse allocation does not make an optimistic picture indeed. The per capita allocation of the cultivated land, fresh water, forest reserves, oil and natural gas in China accounts for 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/10 and 1/22 of the world’s average, respectively. Four hundred cities out of six hundred ones in China suffer from water shortage. Hopefully these numbers will make people realize that it is high time for us all to make the frugality and economy come back in fashion.


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Published in Confucius Institute Magazine
Number 33. Volume IV. July 2014.

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