Monday, May 1, 2017

"Garbage Pigs" Regulatory Challenge

A campaign to curb garbage-feeding of pigs illustrates efforts of China's current regime to cope with the country's transformation to an urbanized economy by cleaning up the environment and repurposing "waste" as resources.

During April, Chinese news media in a number of cities ran articles calling attention to the hazards of feeding restaurant waste to pigs. The most prominent is an investigation of "garbage pigs" or "swill pigs" on the outskirts of Tianjin by China's national Xinhua News Service. The journalist reported finding a location outside Tianjin's ring road where about a dozen farmers raised 100-200 pigs each on waste gathered from restaurants. The operations consisted of a semi-enclosed area where waste cooked, crude brick sheds where pigs are kept, and crude brick structures that serve as living quarters for employees. Small vans loaded with blue barrels and plastic bags used to collect waste from restaurants were parked outside. The operation is conducted on land rented from a village for 8000 yuan per year (about 10 times the common rent for cropland).

According to the Xinhua article, the pigs raised on garbage have a higher proportion of fat than those raised on conventional grain-based feed. Their market weight is as much as 200 kg--nearly double the customary weight. The larger weight could reflect the lower cost of restaurant waste compared with conventional feed. Farmers say they sell the pigs to buyers from other places. (Other reports note that fatty pork from such pigs is preferred in regions further south in China.)

The Xinhua report warns that restaurant waste can contain germs and parasites that are spread to the pigs, raising their mortality rate and posing a risk of transmission to consumers of the pork from these pigs. These farms are also a main source of "gutter oil" produced by skimming oil from the waste as it cooks in giant vats and then recycling it for sale.

The anti-garbage-feeding campaign is part of a broad effort to clean up the country and boost recycling. It parallels a State Council program to upgrade household garbage disposal and recycling launched March 30, 2017. The impetus for the crackdown on garbage-feeding likely comes from a State Council directive to crack down on gutter oil issued April 15, 2017. Most of the news articles on garbage feeding mention the problem of "gutter oil" but they do not cite the State Council document. The document explains that "gutter oil" refers to fats and oils derived from food waste, wastes from meat processing, and uninspected byproducts from meat and poultry slaughter. The new document follows an earlier State Council document ordering a crackdown on gutter oil seven years ago.

Taiyuan City in Shanxi Province has drawn up new regulations that will prohibit unlicensed individuals from collecting restaurant garbage. The regulation will take effect May 1.

An article publicizing the regulations asks readers, "At night, if you see a small truck outside a restaurant collecting smelly waste, did you ever think about where this waste is being taken? How it will be used? Will it be taken to feed pigs or through processing return to the dining table?"

Taiyuan officials estimate the city has 9000 restaurants that generate 380 metric tons of waste daily. Sounding a theme common to these articles, the reporter frets that disposal of the waste is "chaotic" and "unsupervised."

City officials in Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, have had regulations governing restaurant garbage collection for some years. But last month Hohhot organized a 15-day crackdown on illegal transportation of restaurant waste into the city's suburbs to preserve the safety of pork and other foods. The focus of the campaign is on small restaurants that violate the local garbage law. One restaurant raided had an agreement with the city to have waste collected but ignored the contract, instead supplying it to illegal pig farms. The penalty for violations is 500 yuan.

Xiamen, an island city across the strait from Taiwan, is in the midst of adopting a citywide system to collect and treat restaurant waste. Xiamen was chosen in 2015 as one of five national pilot cities for transportation and treatment of food waste. The city appears to be ahead of others, but officials are facing some challenges getting the food waste collection system up and running.

Xiamen used to have an active network of merchants who collected food waste and transported it to pig farms. Big hotels used to collect as much as 70-80,000 yuan annually for their waste, but last month they stopped coming to collect the waste. Hotel and restaurant owners are in a quandary over how to dispose of the waste now. They are now having to pay to have it hauled away.

Xiamen's hog farms have been closed now. The city has opened a waste treatment plant, but its initial capacity of 150 metric tons per day is already fully utilized. The capacity is planned for expansion to 500 metric tons. There are 58 trucks to collect the waste, but each one has a route of up to 35 km to pick up waste, haul it to the plant on the outskirts of the city and unload it. The city only allows these trucks to operate in the city about 5-6 hours per day. District environmental offices are responsible for registering restaurants for food waste pick-up, but it will take a while to get full coverage. Xiamen is estimated to have 30,000 food enterprises and dining halls.

The question is whether the crackdown on garbage-feeding is indeed a new phase in China's development. Or is it another two-week campaign that will soon be forgotten by officials when it is over?

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