Mid-Autumn sees greening of China's mooncake market

Updated: 2010-09-20 16:56
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BEIJING -- For centuries, it was the quintessential symbol of China's Mid-Autumn festival, but in recent years it has become a calling card of waste, extravagance, and obsequiousness.

But this year -- thanks to new rules restricting food packaging -- the humble mooncake is returning to its traditional roots.

Until last year, mooncakes were reportedly placed in gilded or jewelry-hemmed boxes, coupled with brand-name watches, wines, and even gold Buddha statuettes as luxury gifts for bosses, officials, and friends.

And the price of a box could be as high as 10,000 yuan (US$1,490).

Under regulations issued by China's Standardization Administration, no more than three layers of food packaging are allowed, and the cost of the packaging cannot exceed 12 percent of the sale price.

The regulations, which took effect in April, appear to have exerted a major influence on the mooncake market, which is at its peak as the festival falls on September 22.

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As of Monday, two days before the festival, no reports of exorbitantly priced, over-packaged mooncakes had appeared in China's major cities.8   On the shelves of most supermarkets, mooncakes appeared "slimmer," shorn of excessive and costly wrapping, as well as ornate decorations.

"Mooncakes are enveloped with less wrapping materials compared with last year, and more are in recyclable paper boxes than metal ones," said a salesperson in a Wal-Mart in Beijing.

Also gone are the tie-in luxuries and the sky-high price tags. In a Carrefour in Beijing, a well-designed high-end box of six to 10 mooncakes rarely exceeded 500 yuan (US$74 dollars), or 50 yuan apiece.

Many supermarkets saw increased popularity of mooncake stands selling cheap and plainly packaged mooncakes

In Merry Mart, a Beijing-based supermarket, dozens of customers gathered around the stands, handpicking loose cakes.

With fillings such as lotus seed paste, nuts, and egg yolks, the cakes were simply wrapped in paper and casually piled up under a conspicuous price sign saying "9 yuan" (US$1.3 dollars).

Though not presentable as gifts, they were preferable for family gatherings, said a customer surnamed Cui.

"I don't think a 10-yuan cake and a 100-yuan cake taste much different," said Cui.

Over-packaged luxury mooncakes have been lambasted in the media for their association with materialism and corruption.

They were also branded environmentally unfriendly, as ornate mooncake boxes wastefully consumed paper, metal, wood and other materials, and were difficult to recycle.

But despite the disappearance of luxury boxes, this year may not see much change in the Mid-Autumn "gift culture" at the core of the annual excess.

"It has become a custom we tiredly follow," said a customer surnamed Liu, referring to the practice of sending expensive mooncakes to superiors and important friends.

On the other hand, some families face a glut of mooncakes every Mid-Autumn, most of which they politely receive from friends.

"Every Mid-Autumn, we throw away many cakes we can't eat," said Wu Jianhua, a senior engineer in east China's Fuzhou City.

In 2009 alone, China produced 250,000 tons of mooncakes to welcome the Mid-Autumn festival, and the paper used in wrapping consumed more than 6,000 trees, according to the People's Daily website.

Until ordinary Chinese start to question the time-honored but outdated gift-sending mentality, and encourage better packaging and recycling standards, Mid-Autumn will continue to be a time of wasteful over-consumption.