Taiwan’s trash troubles
The Taipei Times should be commended for raising the problem of plastic waste in a recent op-ed piece (“The global hunger for plastic packaging creates endless garbage,” Jan. 4, page 9). Plastic waste is now ubiquitous — walk around any public park, along any river, street or on any beach in Taiwan and non-degradable waste, mostly plastic, will be lying around everywhere.
I once counted the number of plastic items along a 1km stretch of a small river in central Taiwan — 23 large items and more than 200 small items. Plastic does not degrade for centuries or maybe even millenia and much of it ends up in the world’s oceans, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Google it). This waste is suffocating coral reefs as well as killing small and large marine life, including endangered turtles, sea birds and mammals.
While Taiwan has reasonably good recycling rates, there are two problems. First, non-degradable waste, whether it is greenhouse gases or plastic waste, by definition accumulates in the environment faster than it degrades.
Therefore, even if we lower greenhouse gas emissions substantially or increase recycling rates tenfold the problem will only be delayed, but not solved. The solution is to get rid of the problem substance, as the Cradle-to-Cradle approach recommends (www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm).
The second problem is more specific to Taiwan: Since people have to pay to dispose of their trash, poorer people are less willing to pay the cost as it consumes a larger amount of their small budgets. Therefore, poor people perceive it as an unfair and unnecessary cost, and are increasingly disposing of their trash by throwing it into rivers and by the side of the road.
Walk around Taipei’s small forest streets and rivers, and you can see the amounts of garbage growing by the day. Therefore, economic inequality, which is increasing in Taiwan, will make recycling much harder to achieve.
It is lamentable that during the din of the presidential election, discussion of environment problems has, as usual, gotten lost in the fray. Serious discussions of problems such as these have been rare, mostly focused on nuclear energy and greenhouse gases, and mostly drowned out by the various deplorable smear campaigns. Environmental problems are not just global warming — there are dozens of accumulating and non-degradable environmental problem substances, such as dioxins, heavy metals and so on, all of which we should worry about very much.
Sadly, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) re-soling his shoes gets more news traction than real environmental problems.
Civil liberties trump capital
Business tycoons have pretty much all come out in support of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which should not surprise anyone, because China has a cheap labor market and huge consumer base they covet, and of course, the authoritarian oligarchy in Beijing can make their lives quite miserable if they do not sing the right tune. All the Chinese government needs to do is to accuse one firm of environmental damage or unfavorable working condition and the precious factory would have to close down.
The irony is that barely 35 years ago, most of the tycoons would have been shot by either the KMT for treason or by the Chinese Communist Party for being capitalists, but today, Taiwan is a thriving democracy with freedom of speech guaranteed for everyone, so let’s move on and not dwell on the hideous history of China (both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China).