Environmental Freakout: Hong Kong Threw Away 2 Million Mooncakes

Finished mooncakes sit in individual trays at Caritas Hong Kong’s La Vie Bakery food factory in Hong Kong on Sept. 7, 2012.

Mooncakes sit in individual trays at Caritas Hong Kong’s La Vie Bakery food factory in Hong Kong 

Te-Ping Chen writesIt’s mooncake season again in China—that time of year that leaves stomachs, landfills and environmentalists groaning.

Last year, in Hong Kong alone, residents threw out nearly two million moon cakes, according to a survey conducted by local environmental group Green Power, and similar figures are likely this year.

The dense, palm-sized cakes come studded with anything from lotus paste to salted egg yolk and are the ritualistic staple of the country’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which sees millions of people gifting and re-gifting boxes of the holiday staple. In recent years, the confection has also become Public Enemy No. 1 for green groups, thanks to the mountains of elaborate packaging and plastic that are produced to gild pastry boxes and inevitably thrown away.

“It’s unnecessary for packaging to be so complicated,” said Henry Lui of Green Power, citing mooncake tins that come wrapped in plastic and hold still more individual tins boxing single mooncakes, which in turn are also ensconced in more plastic.

The more lavish the packaging, the higher the price. “But they don’t taste different,” Mr. Lui said of the variously priced treats, which can cost US$100 or more per box. “Even when they seem quite luxurious, the content is very similar,” he said—namely oil or lard, sugar and flour.

China has more than 10,000 mooncake manufacturers that collectively produce more than 280,000 metric tons per year—a mammoth 15 billion yuan (US$1.9 billion) business—according to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. Advertisers are also cheered by the season, with mooncake producers spending millions in USD to advertise photos of minor celebrities and models gazing raptly at their products in cities across the country.

To try to crack down on waste, Hong Kong’s government has issued guidelinesurging manufacturers to “maximize space utilization” in mooncake boxes and to avoid using “excessive partition materials,” including individual plastic trays and cardboard dividers. It also supports various recycling programs for the disposal of mooncake paraphernalia. China’s government has previously made similar efforts, including a requirement that the cost of mooncake packaging not exceed the cost of the actual mooncake production by more than 25%.

For those suffering a surfeit of mooncakes, suggestions of what to do with your unwanted stock abound online, including feeding them to your cat or dog, stir-frying slices with green pepper and black mushroom (a less popular option) or grinding the sticky paste into a creative hair product.

A number of charities also accept leftovers for donation to the poor and aged. “Some donors donate the low-sugar ones to the elderly, and others give traditional ones,” says Connie Ng, senior service manager at the Hong Kong nonprofit St James’ Settlement. “All are welcome,” she says, adding that in a typical year, the organization receives about 10,000 mooncake donations, enough to fill several storerooms.

But in the end, the most effective catalyst for trimming Mid-Autumn waste may be China’s anti-corruption drive, with the Communist Party recently making mooncakes the latest casualty of its quest to keep officials clean. Last month, the state-run People’s Daily announced a drive for more mooncake austerity, saying that “polite reciprocity, when overdone, becomes a kind of squandering of cash.” According to a People’s Daily report last week, sales of luxury mooncakes this year have dropped by as much as 12% in certain locations.

– Te-Ping Chen. Follow her on Twitter @tepingchen.

Source: China Real Time Report – WSJ

One Comment on “Environmental Freakout: Hong Kong Threw Away 2 Million Mooncakes”

  1. some of the places take the leftover and just melt the skin together and sell it next year, ewww.

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