Taiwan Turns with the Tide Against Plastics Pollution

What used to be known as the “Petrochemical Kingdom” is now leading the fight against the production and use of plastics, or coming up with clever alternatives

There was a time not so long ago when simply having a shower would typically release hundreds of thousands of plastic microbeads down the drain. Eventually they would wash out to sea and enter the food chain through plankton, fish, and other marine life.

Microbeads are made from petrochemicals and are less than one millimeter in diameter. They were introduced in 1972 and became ever more popular because of their supposed exfoliating qualities when used in toothpastes, face cleansers, moisturizers, and other personal care products. About 99% of the microbeads that didn’t make it to the ocean settled into the sludge at treatment plants and was eventually used as fertilizer.

In time it was not only found that the exfoliating qualities of microbeads are dubious at best, but that the microbeads release harmful bisphenol A and absorb pollutants linked to birth defects and cancer. In 2012 a study showed just how ubiquitous microbeads had become in the food chain. It was calculated that just one shower could release around 100,000 microbeads into the ocean, with households in the U.S. washing some 808 trillion microbeads down the drain each day.

The good news is that microbead products were banned in Taiwan on July 1, 2018. In fact, Taiwan was among the world’s first eight countries to put a stop to the import and manufacture of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics.

What’s more, the phasing out and eventual ban of personal care items with plastic microbeads was the result of a concerted effort by the government, particularly the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), local and international environmental groups, commercial organizations, and the public. It was a win for the environment, arguably with no losers.

This change was a radical U-turn for a country that just a few decades ago was widely known as the “Petrochemical Kingdom” on account of its huge petrochemical industry spearheaded by the state-owned CPC Corp. and the private-sector Formosa Plastics Group. Despite having no natural oil or natural gas reserves, Taiwan developed a first-rate manufacturing base for plastics derivatives, which became a pillar of the national economy from the 1960s.

Only after Taiwan became relatively rich in the latter half of the 20th century could it afford to think about the harm these industries were doing to the environment. Then pressure groups started forming and taking direct action against big business, gaining popular support. This movement swelled and eventually became so powerful it prevented the NT$600 billion (US$19.3 billion) Kuokuang petrochemical project from going ahead in 2011, also shuttering CPC’s Fifth Naphtha Cracker in Kao-hsiung in 2016.

Stricter laws, difficulty getting planning permission, and the reputational cost of taking on well-organized green groups prevented further development of what was now seen as a dirty industry. At the same time, incentives from China led many local manufacturers to offshore their operations across the Strait.

These factors, plus an ever more engaged EPA, effectively started removing polluting industries and gave Taiwan the opportunity to clean up its act.

Visitors attend the Sea, What’s the Plastic – Taiwan Coastal Garbage Inspection exhibition organized by Greenpeace in Taipei. Photo: Jules Quartly

This transformation from Taiwan being a major petrochemical manufacturer to being at the forefront of the fight against plastic pollution was the narrative of a recent exhibition organized by Greenpeace. Held at the 24-hour Eslite bookstore on Dunhua South Road at the end of August, it was called Sea, What’s the Plastic – Taiwan Coastal Garbage Inspection. Earnest Greenpeace volunteers guided streams of visitors through aisles festooned with plastic detritus suspended from the ceiling or sculpted into displays.

Greenpeace, which established its Taiwan presence in 2010, is the only international environmental, non-governmental organization in Taiwan. At its lively office in a four-floor building near the Presidential Office, it organizes green campaigns and trawls for contributions from individuals and foundation grants, since it does not accept donations from governments or corporations.

Chris Liu, the Taipei-based communications team leader for Greenpeace East Asia, notes that Greenpeace started actively campaigning for the phasing out of microbeads in cosmetic products from 2015. Since 2017, the organization has been encouraging schools to go plastics-free by introducing green ideas through talks and activities.

Last year, Greenpeace launched an investigation into the amount of marine debris on the nation’s coastline, which led to the EPA following up and initiating a seashore clean-up campaign in conjunction with local governments.

This year Greenpeace has been urging the major supermarket chains to go plastics-free. Liu says a “citizen science” survey of the supermarkets determined that 95% of plastic packaging is single-use, meaning that “the life cycle is very short and the plastic finds its way into the environment quickly – and this could be mostly prevented.”

Another Greenpeace initiative is plastic-free marathons featuring reusable drinking cups and the absence of plastic wrapping and bags on the T-shirts given away. A Greenpeace study showed that Taiwan hosts about 784 running events annually, resulting in the use of some 4 million plastic cups. If stacked one on top of another, they would equal 394 Taipei 101s. 

Cutting down on straws

Greenpeace was also involved in the recent ban on single-use plastic straws, which went into effect on July 1, affecting fast-food chains, shopping malls, government departments, and schools. Those flouting regulations are warned and then fined from NT$1,200 to $6,000. A representative of McDonald’s in Taiwan was quoted as saying that eliminating plastic straws would reduce plastic waste at is stores by 16%.

In celebration of the ban on straws in those locations, Greenpeace put up a fun quiz on its website, asking people to guess how many straws Taiwanese use in a year. Try it yourself: a) 30 million; b) 3 billion; or c) 300 million. The answer is 3 billion, or 140 straws per person, which shows the scale of the problem. In fact, the public reaction to the partial ban on straws has been so positive that extension of the policy to take-out items may be moved up from the original schedule of the end of 2020. 

Liu cites the United Nations finding that plastics pollution is second only to climate change as a critical threat to the planet. Naturally, he drinks from a ceramic mug rather than buying single-use plastic bottles and carries around his own chopsticks instead of using disposables.

AWASH IN PLASTICS

– 51 trillion microplastics particles litter the seas (500 times more than stars in our galaxy)
– Plastic harms the marine bacteria Prochlorococcus, which scientists say produces 10% of the oxygen we breathe 
– Up to 80% of all litter in the oceans is made of plastic
– By 2050, 99 per cent of earth’s seabirds will have ingested plastic
– Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic end up in oceans
– This is estimated to cost at least US$8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems
– At the current rate, by 2050, oceans will have more plastic than fish
– A study shows even worms fail to thrive in soil containing microplastics
Source: United Nations Environment Program, and The Guardian

He quotes the “Plastic 3 Rs” as rules to live by: Reduce (less garbage in and less garbage out); Reuse (do without throwaway products, use items that can be reused many times); Rethink (promote a circular economy and the goal of zero waste). Besides changes in individual action, he hopes that business will also embrace the cause.

The example of a Taiwanese company called Minima Technology is instructive. Founded in 2000 by chemical engineer Huang Chien-ming, the company produces biodegradable plastics, but for a long time the demand for its products was so limited that it struggled to stay afloat.

That changed in 2018, when Minima’s products received U.S. certification and Starbucks urgently needed biodegradable straws to deal with a ban on plastic straws back in Seattle. Now Apple and Costco also use the company’s products, and Formosa Plastics has taken a 19% stake in the company, while Japan’s Mitsui & Co. Plastics has taken 10%.

These companies see promising business opportunities in offering biodegradable plastics products as one of the solutions to tightening government controls around the world on plastics waste and pollution.

Another example of change in Taiwan was the government ban on plastic bags at the beginning of 2018, which meant stores were not allowed to offer them free with a sale. According to the EPA’s Department of Waste Management, Taiwanese on average used 700 plastic bags per annum before January last year. After that date, 70% of customers chose to do without a bag rather than pay a mere NT$1 or $2. The result should be an annual reduction of 1.5 billion plastic bags a year. The aim is to reduce average annual use to 100 bags by 2025 and to eliminate them entirely by 2030.

“This is quite good,” says Liu. “The government is on board and phasing out plastics use, corporate support is growing, and so is the general awareness of society. The overall direction is positive, but what we are pushing for now is a faster timeline.”

Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan has called Taiwan “a role model for other countries” by phasing out single-use plastics.

The nation’s onetime “Petrochemical Kingdom” moniker and trash-strewn coastline are on the face of it difficult to square with the idea of being a role model and world leader in battling plastic pollution, Liu admits. But he says he can point to exactly when everything changed and environmental awareness became a big issue for the majority of Taiwanese.

The turning point, he says, was when an agonizing 10-minute video of a sea turtle in Costa Rica having a plastic straw removed from its nose went viral in 2015. “People really started thinking about plastic waste and the harm it was causing, and this carried on with stories about whales dying on Taiwan’s coast and revealing the amount of plastic they had ingested,” Liu recalls.

This was also when beach-cleaning activities became popular and young people started getting involved in environmental activism – lately further inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist behind the global youth-strike movement regarding climate change. “In Taiwan we’re seeing quite a lot of students doing this sort of thing, giving voice to their opinions and demanding action on emission controls, plastic pollution, and so on,” Liu says.

Photo: H. Hach from Pixabay

While Greenpeace is often the most visible face of environmentalism, many other smaller-scale and localized organizations are also active, like the grassroots environmentalist NGOs that worked with the EPA in 2017 to create the Marine Waste Management Platform (MWMP). These included the Kuroshio Ocean Education Foundation, Taiwan Environmental Information Association, Society of Wilderness, Ocean Citizen Foundation, Hi-in Studio, Lee-zen Foundation, and the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association.

MWMP primarily sought to reduce plastic litter, such as PET bottles and their caps, plastic bags, disposable utensils, plastic straws, and single-use take-away beverage cups. After dozens of meetings, the platform came up with a timeline to reduce single-use plastic products in three phases. By the end of the third phase in 2030, those products should be totally eliminated in Taiwan.

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