Doing Your Part: Ten Easy Ways to Live Sustainably in China

Doing Your Part: Ten Easy Ways to Live Sustainably in China
Feb 07, 2013 By Esta Chappell ,

On first impression, China may not be the most environmentally friendly country in the world; air quality that would rival a 1960’s pub, waste disposal systems akin to medieval times and a booming plastic industry where even eggs are so heavily wrapped that Humpty Dumpty would be fine to jump off the wall. But urban living in China has its environmental upsides, and with just a bit of extra effort you can help make a difference.

1) Take the bus
The benefit of living in almost any Chinese city is the public transport. Even secondary cities have, or are implementing, metro systems and all have a well-utilized public bus system. Although the number of private vehicles in China is still increasing (114 million automobiles as of 2012, up 3.67% from 2011; Ministry of Public Security), air quality and noise pollution can be greatly reduced simply by leaving the car or moped at home and taking the bus. An even better environmental solution would be to walk or bike to work but you might want to consider wearing a face mask.

Doing Your Part: Ten Easy Ways to Live Sustainably in China  
Bus, car or bike? Photo:

2) High-rise living
Although it’s a little tricky installing your own solar hot water system, or growing an indoor vegetable garden, living in a high-rise apartment building in the city has its environmental advantages—primarily location. With migration to the cities happening as if KFC just announced a new free chicken sandwich, developers are building up rather than out, and at a colossal rate. Living closer to your workplace and amenities significantly reduces travel distances and therefore greenhouse gas emissions from urban traffic. There are still negative aspects of high-rise buildings though; increased energy use from constantly lit and ventilated central hallways and underground carparks, lifts, and in some cases spas, saunas and pools (if you’re so lucky).

3) Water use
It would be highly unusual to live somewhere in China where it’s safe to drink water from the tap. An environmentalist’s first reaction to this is somewhat jaw dropping, but it doesn’t necessarily mean having to buy landfill quantities of plastic bottles. China has a very efficient water delivery system where refillable bottles of filtered water are delivered directly to your door. Increased awareness of water use can also come about through having to buy it by the bottle – you don’t pour it down the sink continuously while brushing your teeth, do you?

4) Eco-friendly washing
Whether it’s a lack of space or the cost of electricity, the Chinese have not embraced electric clothes driers, instead preferring the natural, ‘bacteria-killing’ properties of the sun to dry their washing. In the hierarchy of sustainable practices, it doesn’t get any better than simply refusing to use a device that consumes energy to produce heat. On the same theme, most furnished apartments come with a washing machine that has only a single cold-water connection. The majority of energy (~90%) used to wash clothes comes from heating the water and much of the time the clothes do not come out any cleaner.

Doing Your Part: Ten Easy Ways to Live Sustainably in China  
Air-drying washing outside in Hong Kong. Photo: E. Chappell

5) Meat consumption
As a foreigner living in China you may find yourself eating less meat than in your home country—if only to avoid laduzi—which from an environmental perspective is a good thing. Livestock farming significantly contributes to global warming through the release of nitrous oxide from fertilizers and animal excrement. Not only that but the water footprint (i.e. the water required to produce animal feed, drinking water etc.) of livestock is far greater than what is required to produce grain or other crops for human consumption. For example, one kilogram of beef requires approximately 15,000 L of water whereas a kilogram of rice takes only ~2,500 L of water. You don’t necessarily have to go completely vegan to save the planet, but cutting down on meat consumption can go a long way.

6) Sustainable foodstuffs
On the theme of sustainable food, if you are not bothered by the thought of over-fishing or the extinction of fish species, then maybe you will be swayed by the health benefits of eating sustainably harvested fish. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Gerber et al., 2012), found that unsustainably harvested fish, which tend to be the large, top predators like tuna, have higher levels of mercury and lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Smaller fish species such as mackerel and herring are generally much better for you and are sustainably fished. Of interest, the WWF seafood guide for Hong Kong only recommends sea urchin, scallop, clam, abalone or oyster from the South China Sea or China itself. So you may have to go further afield to get a healthy dose of sustainable omega-3.

Doing Your Part: Ten Easy Ways to Live Sustainably in China  
Dried fish for sale near Lake Taihu, Jiangsu Province. Photo: E. Chappell

7) Reusable over recyclable
With China’s fast growing economy comes a fast growing single-use, disposable consumerist society. And although you have been led to believe in the environmental benefits of recycling those plastic bottles and paper coffee cups, it’s far more sustainable to invest in reusable items, especially in China. For example, although a plastic bottle with the recycling code PET 1 can get turned into polar fleece clothing, it cannot then be recycled any further; some term this “downcycling”. Even coffee giant Starbucks is jumping on the “Reuse” bandwagon with the introduction (at least in the US and Canada) of  (Chinese made) reusable coffee cups. So next time you order a latte or head to the grocery store, remember: reusable over recyclable.

8) Buy local
A bit of inside knowledge on the manufacture and production of everyday items can be very disturbing. Even a simple pair of socks may have travelled thousands of kilometres back and forth across the world, clocking up a substantial carbon footprint – from where the cotton is grown, to where it’s knitted, then dyed etc. – before finally landing in your local department store. Of course with loopholes in labeling laws, it can be near impossible to tell where and how a product is made. But whether it’s an apple or an apple computer, try to buy locally whenever possible. This not only supports local businesses, and therefore keeping jobs and money in the community, but it also reduces carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels associated with transportation.

9) Educate
One of the best ways to instigate change in habit and lifestyle is through education. There is a huge environmental literacy gap in China, evident from the men fishing in highly polluted canals to countless unsustainable buildings currently in construction. However, large proportions of expats living in China are in the education industry, and therefore have the unique opportunity to raise environmental awareness, integrate concepts like sustainable development into their teaching, and get young people thinking about China’s future environment.

10) Technology
Seldom do we make the connection between the latest smart phone and those families displaced by the latest hydro-electric dam development (think the Three Gorges Dam). Well that is a little extreme for a direct link but gadgets such as phones and computers are common household items which all require power. However, the popular advice of unplugging your charger when it’s not charging your phone is only a drop in the ocean in terms of power savings. MacKay (2009) points out “All the energy saved in switching off your charger for one day is used up in one second of car-driving”. The real consumers are your TV and computer (e.g. a TV uses 100W of electricity compared to the 5W used by a phone charger). Something to think about as you read this article on your laptop with the TV going in the background maybe?

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Keywords: Sustainable living in China China reduce and reuse environmentally friendly in China


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hey...u got me there...the tv certainly going on in the background....sorry but i can't do away with cctv news

Dec 01, 2013 23:01 Report Abuse



I guess it's a bit frustrating when you come to China from an environmentally aware country and have to witness littering, waste and a laissez-faire attitude towards the environment. The pollutants entering the atmosphere where I live can even make the snow black! The idea is to maintain your standards while you witness all this around you. Yes we should, as teachers, take every opportunity to pass on ideas on how to be more aware of the environment to our students. It's a start!

Feb 07, 2013 09:58 Report Abuse



Good tips! Now, if only they would start teaching those to kids in schools here so that they become more environmentally aware and pass the knowledge on to their ignorant parents!

Feb 07, 2013 09:03 Report Abuse