Will we all burn in a fire made of mooncake packaging?

Imagethief likes the Mid-Autumn Festival. I like it because even though it actually comes in late summer, it reminds me of autumn, and autumn is famously the nicest time of year in Beijing. In any year devoid of Olympic rigging, late summer in Beijing is intolerably hot, muggy and polluted. This year it was merely hot.

Over the years many people have told Imagethief that the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival falls in summer because of inconsistency between the Chinese lunar and western Gregorian calendars. This is total BS and I see no reason why I should accept obviously finagled explanations from people just because they are “Chinese”. The real reason is that without some reminder of imminent autumn and its much improved climate, half the population of Beijing would commit suicide in late August and early September, in the dregs of the Venusian summer atmosphere. In Scandinavia it’s the lightless winters that do it. In Beijing it’s the airless summers.

If you assume that Beijing has fourteen million people (and don’t bother controlling for migrant labor, tourists, etc.) a one year half-life would leave Beijing with a population of just thirteen people in a mere twenty years. This would obviously be totally unacceptable to government mandarins, who would no longer be able to feel the satisfaction of clearing out an entire lane on Chang’an Ave. and making millions of gridlocked commuters watch them roar past in a motorcade. Roaring past one peasant and his donkey cart on an otherwise completely deserted twelve lane boulevard just doesn’t have the same effect, and anyway the same effect can be had in the new Burmese capital-cum-supervillain hideout of Naypyidaw.

So Mid-Autumn Festival is a good thing. We all agree on that. However, just as the miracle of a Tex-Mex dinner comes with the heartbreak of punishing day-after flatulence, the miracle of Mid-Autumn Festival comes with its own curse: Mooncakes.

Mooncakes are the Chinese fruitcake: Cloying pastries that appears once a year for traditional reasons that everyone has forgotten, generally as gifts, and which, cockroach-like, resist all attempts at eradication. If you must know the history, it’s on Wikipedia. Scroll right to the bottom, since most of the entry is devoted to the culinary characteristics.

Many people complain to Imagethief about mooncakes. Inedible. Gross. Heavy. Burn longer than a tin of Sterno. And so on. To direct all this anger at the innocent and humble mooncake itself is to miss the point. First, Imagethief likes mooncake, albeit in small doses (it’s best cut with Chinese tea on the side). Of course, Imagethief also likes fruitcake. In fact, Imagethief pretty much likes anything sweet. I’d eat gravel if you mixed it with brown sugar.

But the other thing is that is that the main problem with the mooncake is not the cake itself. It’s the packaging, which could be the least green consumer item since the Hummer.

I was reminded of this when the translation company delivered a palletload of mooncake boxes to me and my team as part of the obligatory upward mooncake flow from vendor to client. Each of us received a heavy, embossed and foil stamped bag with rope handles. In the bag was a heavy cardboard box with a tri-fold faux-embroidery lid with faux-embroidery dragon applique. Within the box was a cardboard frame wrapped in a faux-silk shroud and lovingly cradling eight mooncakes. Each mooncake was in an individual cardboard box, a sealed plastic wrap and a plastic cup. Two pairs of wooden chopsticks in a fabric envelope were included for good measure. The theme throughout was tasteful and subdued imperial yellow garnished with dragons.

Gross weight: About two and a half kilos. Net weight: About 640 grams. Multiply by a nation of 1.3 billion people. Sure, not everybody gets mooncakes. But some of us get lots of mooncakes. You can see where the environmental toll will start to add up.

Fortunately, the picture is not as grim as it seems. Like fruitcakes, mooncakes are, if not an infinitely renewable resource, at least an infinitely recyclable one. Every year at this time the hand-lettered “recycle mooncakes” signs go up outside neighborhood shops and on curbside stands. Like overpackaged Chinese brandy sets, mooncakes are infinitely re-giftable. Shanghai, ever the city of commerce, has brought the mooncake recycling market to unprecedented levels of trading sophistication. Rather than give physical mooncakes, it’s common to give a coupon that can be redeemed for mooncakes. These coupons are then traded on an informal exchange of office ladies and household ahyis that offers NYMEX-like liquidity. Like the oil futures market, it seems that the actual mooncakes rarely enter into the final equation. However there is some risk as, like a bank run, its unclear if the system could actually withstand a mass-redemption event.

The upshot is that while approximately four billion tons of mooncakes are gifted every mid-autumn, only about ten pounds are actually consumed. This means that the packaging situation is perhaps not as bleak as it first appeared.

Imagethief sees this as yet another sign of Chinese technological advancement. Like an MRE a mooncake has a nearly infinite shelf life, allowing for century after century of suck-up regifting on a highly leveraged environmental footprint. Surely this is a system worthy of the inventors of moveable type, the compass, paper money, rhinestone dog collars, the Slinky, aerosol breath freshener, etc. etc.

The mooncake tradition traces its history back to the fourteenth century. How charming and ecologically sensible that the mooncake you are now slicing into may also date back to that same century.

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