Saving food is part of a new, green and low-carbon lifestyle

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At noon they weed with hoes; Their sweat drips on the soil. Each bowl of rice, who knows? Is the fruit of hard toils.

This poem by Tang Dynasty (618-907) politician and poet Li Shen (772-846) paints a vivid picture of farmers working in their fields, indicating Li's compassion for those who work hard all year round despite the hardships of life and weather alike. It might also be some of the most famous lines for Chinese parents to quote when explaining to their kids the food on the table did not appear there overnight and they must cherish every bite.

"For our parents and the older generations, some of whom can still recall the days without adequate food, 'clearing your plate' is more about saving some food for a rainy day; for us young adults, the phrase has taken on new value: It denotes a green and low-carbon lifestyle," Liu Jichen, founder and CEO of Clear Plate, an anti-food wasting program, told Beijing Review.

According to the World Food Program, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. This amounts to some 1.3 billion tons per year, worth approximately $1 trillion. Moreover, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Food Waste Index Report 2021 suggests that 8 to 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with unconsumed food.

The Clear Plate team is tackling the issue of food waste. After a meal, users take photos of their clean plates, post these in an applet on multi-functional social media platform WeChat, collect points once the image is recognized by the artificial intelligence, and then convert their accumulated points to gifts or charity donations, Liu explained.

Launched in 2018, Clear Plate currently has more than 4.3 million users whose around 45 million participations in anti-food wasting actions are equivalent to reducing food waste by 1,700 tons and carbon emissions by 6,600 tons.

Food for thought 

In 2016, when Liu became president of the Student Vegetarian Association at Tsinghua University, he organized a type of potluck dinner where people could bring their leftovers, or, in his words, "gross food," and eat together. The program's success encouraged him to promote food waste reduction among a larger audience.

The idea for Clear Plate came to Liu after one dinner at a restaurant in late 2017. The eatery would give customers a card if they finished all the food they'd ordered and once a certain number of cards had been assembled, the people could collect their rewards.

The central and local governments have poured a lot of effort into combating food waste in recent years. On October 31, the general offices of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council released an action plan on saving food in the overall processes of production, storage, transportation and consumption, and called on society to further engage via food-saving campaigns.

"According to the traditional approach, we would use posters and slogans to raise awareness, but these kinds of methods are often ignored by the public," Liu said, adding that the restaurant's engaging method went well beyond regular promotional campaigns and reduced food waste by motivating consumers.

"Yet it was limited to one restaurant's actions, so I figured, why not promote such endeavors on a larger scale? And how?" Liu wondered. And then he teamed up with some of his friends, founded a startup and developed the Clear Plate applet.

In doing so, the offline version of Clear Plate was transformed into an online one with the support of the Internet. "The technology helped spread it to a far wider audience," Liu said.

Liu took three years off from his academic pursuits at Tsinghua in order to focus on his new program. The team soon received funding and support from the government and enterprises alike.

The points users collected can be exchanged for cups, soaps and books, or can be converted to cash and donated to charities supporting, for example, left-behind children or elderly citizens living alone in rural areas.

This October, Liu and his team, with the support of the All-China Youth Federation, launched the Clear Plate in Campus campaign for the fourth time. Last time, in 2020, the one-month campaign engulfed 1,017 universities across China and attracted around 1.6 million participants, collectively reducing food waste by 826 tons and carbon emissions by 3,337 tons.

"Clear Plate hopes to kickstart a new trend among the younger generations that sees people cherish their food and develop the habit of leading a low-carbon lifestyle," Liu added.

Liu's determination represents a miniature version of the changing Chinese lifestyle. According to a white paper entitled Responding to Climate Change: China's Policies and Actions, issued by the State Council Information Office on October 27, tens of thousands of households are practicing climate-related caution by saving food, water, paper and energy, opting to use eco-friendly materials for home decoration, and saying no to over-packaging and disposable products. The nation is turning toward a healthier, greener and more low-carbon lifestyle.

Daring to dream 

The UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 also states how substantial amounts of food that are produced but not eaten by humans in turn can have a negative impact: environmentally, socially and economically speaking.

Liu, for one, is not happy with this status quo. In September 2020, his innovative and practical actions regarding social issues made him one of 17 members standing out among more than 7,600 candidates worldwide to be welcomed into the 2020 Class of Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the Office of the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth. In November that year, Liu introduced his most recent work and future objectives to UN Secretary General António Guterres, who commended the great differences Liu had made and encouraged him to keep going.

"I want to promote the Clear Plate campaign worldwide, maybe in different ways," Liu said, for example, with a clean plate challenge, you finish one and assign your friends to do the same or donate to charity.

"I think it would be better to improve people's awareness of saving food and leading a low-carbon lifestyle through a sustainable development theory," Liu said. "This could also help present China's green stories to the world, as we have shared values to protect our common home, planet Earth."

The goals of the Clear Plate campaign run in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all UN member states in 2015, according to Liu, for example, zero hunger, responsible consumption and production and sustainable development.

"Being a Young Leader for the SDGs will be leverage to help scale our impact. We hope our efforts can spark a new trend among the younger generations, encouraging them to respect and cherish food and embrace a more sustainable lifestyle," Liu concluded.

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