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Over packaging China’s rice dumplings

Over packaging China’s rice dumplings, Packaging, Asia, China, Dragon Boat Festival
In the first real test of the Chinese government’s intention to implement new regulations banning Excessive Packaging which become effective on 1 July 2012, the state controlled media has mounted a campaign fuelling a public backlash against over packing traditional rice dumplings (zongzi).

In China, and much of South East Asia, rice dumplings are traditionally consumed to celebrate the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival (‘DuanWu Jie’ in Mandarin) - a traditional holiday celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar calendar (23 June 2012). 

The zongzi dumplings are made of glutinous rice combined with various fillings (pork, chestnut, vegetable, etc). The ingredients are poured into a casing of bamboo leaves woven into a pyramid-shape. Tied in bundles with string, they are then steamed or boiled for several hours to allow the glutinous rice to cook and absorb the flavour of the extra ingredients. 

Over packaging China’s rice dumplings, Packaging, Asia, China, Dragon Boat FestivalZongzi are traditionally sold cold ‘unpackaged’, the bamboo leaves acting as the packaging itself, with the pyramid-shaped bundles hung from the vendor’s stall, typically selling for US$0.45 – US$0.55 (RMB 3 to RMB 4) each.

However, with the advent of modern retail, they are now also commonly found in supermarkets during the festive season, displayed either loosely on their own in their leaf packages, or in individual plastics packs for additional food safety. Many are also sold individually or in bundles in vacuum packs for extended shelf life.

Vehicle for Corruption

In recent years, as Chinese per capita urban disposable incomes have risen more than 10-fold since 1991, from US$267 (RMB1,700) to more than US$2,700, some street and snack foods associated with particular festivals have been re-invented with elaborate packaging to be presented as gifts, often in boxed sets, making them an ideal vehicle for corruption: notably the Mooncake but now the humble zongzi has also come in for a make-over.

Over packaging China’s rice dumplings, Packaging, Asia, China, Dragon Boat FestivalAt this year’s festival, new zongzi purchase options emerged: glossy paper box-bags were displayed, some structurally designed to look like the pyramid-shaped zongzi itself. Still more elaborate gift sets priced at more than several hundred renminbi were displayed in the most prominent positions of stores as premium product.

The Imperial Palace Food Company, Beijing, produced one of the most expensive zongzi gift sets in China; retailing at US$296 (RMB 1,880) the gift-set included 12 zongzi, two tins of Chinese tea, a tureen, 12 tea cakes and other adornments in small metal tins.

Meanwhile in Wuhan, Hubei province, a five-star international hotel chain offered a US$ 453 (RMB 2,888) zongzi gift set containg nine zongzi, a bottle of Remy Martin VSOP, a tin of XO sauce and a packet of Chinese tea.

A far cry from the humble 45¢ steamed rice dumpling snack.

Professor Hu Xingdou, a political commentator at the Beijing Institute of Technology, in interviews with the local media alleged that these zongzi gift sets were mainly used for bribes: “Today’s rice dumplings include not only rice, but also many strange items that people use to please and bribe officials.”

China’s Excessive Packaging Law

But apart from concerns about bribery, the media has been highlighting public complaints over excessive packaging now commonplace in zongzi gift sets.

In coordinated local media reports from around China, consumers were quoted complaining that not only were the elaborately packaged zongzi too expensive, but that the gift sets wasted packaging resources. Over packaging China’s rice dumplings, Packaging, Asia, China, Dragon Boat Festival

This growing media attention mirrors the annual orchestrated campaign against the Excessive Packaging of mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival - celebrated in September or early October depending on the Lunar calendar – in which the Chinese media highlight the most extreme cases of excessive packaging of these lotus-paste filled baked crusty pies.

In recent years mooncakes have become thinly veiled bribes dressed up in the guise of China’s rich cultural tradition of gift giving.

A box of Moon Cakes containing a gold Buddha figurine was sold by a Beijing store in 2007 for US$22,500 (¥180,000). Another box on the same shelf included the key to a new apartment worth US$38,750 (¥310,000).

Over packaging China’s rice dumplings, Packaging, Asia, China, Dragon Boat FestivalAs a result of these wild excesses, the government introduced the “Compulsory State Standards for the Production of Moon Cakes" which took effect in June 2006.

The scope of this compulsory standard was later expanded to become the 2008 Trade Restrictions Regulations On Over-Packaging. In line with the objective to limit over-packaging requirements, it governs the legal obligations of commodity producers, seller, supervision and management agencies. It also defines over-packaging and sets the legal liability and penalties for non compliance.

In early 2012, the ordinance was incorporated into the Cleaner Production Law as an amendment, effective 1 July 2012.

As is typical with the imposition of new regulations, the state-owed media are directed to support the government by promoting public awareness of the legislation.


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