When I first arrived in America in 1988 as a foreign student, I worked in a college office. Once I printed out a batch of letters and a tiny ink spot was noticed on each copy. I was told to discard them (there was no recycling back then) and reprint the whole batch. I hesitated, holding the nice and thick bond paper in my hands, as if about to commit an unthinkable crime.

Throughout my school years in China, there was never enough paper. One semester our textbooks were delayed for weeks because of a shortage of paper. To save scratch paper, we’d often use pencil first and then write over the pencil marks in ink. Instead of tissues and paper towels, we used handkerchiefs and cloth wipes.

To this day, I still gasp silently when I see my own children throw away barely used paper. For consolation, at least I know they recycle or compost. I myself have acquired many New World habits over the years, consuming material as if we had endless resources, as if conserving belonged to another time and another place that was associated with deprivation and underdevelopment.

Now we know better. Not only do wasteful habits drain our resources, but mindless habits, such as overusing disposable plastics, can have serious consequences for our environment. Every minute, one garbage truck worth of plastic is dumped into the ocean, according to a study by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey and Co.

When growing up in Shanghai in the 1970s, I never saw a plastic shopping bag. When my grandmother did food shopping every morning, she always brought a bamboo basket or a nylon bag, except when she had to carry a live chicken or duck by hand.

Before we had refrigerators, leftover food would be covered under a mesh canopy, put away in a cupboard with screens or hung up in a basket in a breezy hallway. Later, we used durable plastic lids to cover food bowls in the refrigerator before cling wrap and disposable plastic sandwich bags became popular.


There was no packaged junk food. Children bought candies and dried fruit wrapped in paper. Crackers came in tins or paper bags. Milk was delivered fresh in glass bottles that were collected and reused, and yogurt was sold in similar bottles. There was plenty of seasonal fruit available but not much commercially produced juice, hence no paper or plastic cartons. There were no vending machines, so no cans or juice boxes. Soda or beer bottles could be returned to stores; newspapers and magazines could be redeemed by the kilo.

As a result, there was very little trash. We never had a trash can at home, only a dustpan.

For takeout, we would bring our own containers. There were no plastic cups, plates or utensils (which are everywhere now in China). In my boarding school, each student owned a set of enamel bowls and utensils, which we washed by hand after each meal and put away in homemade sacks. We also used enamel mugs for drinking and enamel basins for washing.

Clothes and shoes were all hand-washed, air-dried and kept in use for a long time. Bikes were also well cared for and shared across generations.

There were no mechanical pencils, hence no plastic shells. Our ballpoint pens were made of wood or bamboo. I survived secondary school with mostly pencils and a couple of fountain pens! These days, we seem to be surrounded by cheap pens and pencils. Where do they all end up, and how much plastic waste will they generate?

Bit by bit, however, Old World habits seem to be coming back (even in China, where most disposable plastic products have been made in recent decades). We are encouraged to save trees by recycling paper, printing less and using paper made with recycled materials. Canteen bottles are back, and so are enamel mugs and bowls. Silicone lids are available for covering bowls and cups, waxed paper for wrapping food, fabric bags for carrying snacks, mesh or compostable bags for storing fruits and vegetables and reusable bags for shopping.

Conservation habits are not anachronistic in our modern world, after all. They have been reinstituted to protect our fragile ecosystem. We should remain mindful of where things come and where they go, and take responsibility for foreseeable consequences of our consuming habits, no matter how convenient they may be in the moment – such as picking up a plastic straw to drink a soda the next time you go to the movies.

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