The Mid Autumn Festival, also known as the Lantern Festival, is an important cultural event on the Chinese calendar. Families celebrate by gathering together under the full moon, hanging lanterns for prosperity, and indulging in mooncakes which symbolize their unity.
However, this festive celebration has its dark sides – the popularity of the Mid Autumn Festival has given rise to a culture of excess consumption, and concerns have been mounting over the impact on sustainability such cultural traditions are posing.
The Problem With Mooncakes
A survey conducted by Food Grace and Green Community found that over 4.64 million mooncakes were left unwanted from the Mid Autumn Festival in 2021. The organization contacted 300 families about their habits of giving and receiving mooncakes – a hallmark tradition of gifting pastry products which are traditionally stuffed with lotus paste and egg yolk, although contemporary versions range from custard fillings to ice cream mooncakes.
However, the issue doesn’t end at food waste, excessive packaging used for mooncakes adds to the landfill problem. Over 80% of households indicated that overt mooncake packaging required attention from relevant authorities, according to a report from Food Grace in 2022.
Derek Lam, a 24-year-old customer at Kee Wah Bakery, said, “Eco-friendly options for mooncakes aren’t widely available in most bakeries.” This was a sentiment shared by workers in Maxim Bakery and A1 Bakery, both of whom wished to stay anonymous.
Lam further shared, “Even If I wanted to recycle, it is simply too inconvenient for me to wash the plastic and remember all the rules and regulations as to what can be recycled. People don’t see the incentive of recycling.”
Dana Winograd, co-founder and Executive Director of Plastic Free Seas, said, “We can’t incentivize responsible behavior for every single action that we take. However, it can be confusing for an individual to know which product is eco-friendly.”
She urged people to buy products with minimal packaging when possible, “I would avoid buying the reusable metal boxes. Theoretically, these boxes can be reused, but how many people would actually keep them and reuse them? If you get three of them you won’t keep all three every year.”
Arina Wong, a 20-year-old youngster, said, “I don’t even like eating traditional mooncakes, especially the ones with egg yolks.” A 2015 survey by Green Power, a green organization based in Hong Kong, shared that about 20% of the 600 interviewees greatly disliked receiving mooncakes.
Winograd showed her respect towards the importance and popularity of the festival’s traditions. She also added, “If there is a way to offer alternatives to this traditional custom so that it might be more appealing to some people, it could help to reduce waste.” She elaborated by citing the example of Haagen Dazs ice cream mooncakes which have been on the market for a few years now. These mooncakes are highly popular with the younger generation.
While most interviewees from the Food Grace survey said they either donated or gave away their mooncake surpluses, 37% admitted to throwing them away.
But this need not be the case. The Environmental Protection Department’s spokesperson said, “Although our department doesn’t have a specialized initiative for mooncake package recycling, people can recycle at designated recycling spots or at a Green@Community facility which is funded by the EDP.” At such facilities, staff members are designated to help people sort their recyclable materials.
The government has also made efforts to increase awareness of more eco-friendly packaging among manufacturers by providing guidelines on Environmental mooncake packaging design. Winograd believes this helps raise awareness in general and hopes the manufacturers are incorporating the guidelines.
… And It’s Not Just Mooncakes
Families flock to the beach to celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival.
Winograd shared that her organization has done post Lantern Festival clean ups and found a significant number of batteries from lanterns. Glow sticks and batteries contain harmful chemicals in them that are bad for the environment once decomposed.
Both Winograd and the EDP campaign suggested buying reusable lanterns in order to reduce waste during the Lantern Festival. Winogard further suggested kids to make their own lanterns. She heard that years ago, people used the rind of a melon to hold candles as makeshift lanterns. She recommends flashlights with rechargeable batteries instead of glow sticks.
Winograd has one final suggestion when it comes to buying festive delicacies: “If we were to consider packaging, recyclability, minimization, how it looks, and the price when purchasing mooncakes, we’d be better off.”