The shopkeepers near my university know me well: The mad foreigner who brings used and washed plastic bags and a rucksack to carry home bread, cakes and just about everything else.
While I stand in line, I always shake my head in disbelief at the plastic madness on show every day in every shop across the nation: A single bread roll wrapped in a plastic bag, then placed in another bag to carry home, only to be thrown out after one use.
Taiwan uses about 1.5 billion disposable plastic cups every year, or 64 cups per person (“Plastic cups, lids litter coastline,” May 4, 2011, page 2). Do people really think that resources come from nowhere and disappear into nowhere? Because nothing could be further from the truth.
Plastic pollution is one of the world’s great environmental problems. The terrible damage done by fossil fuel extraction which is the basis for plastic production has been summarized previously (“Renewables way forward,” July 6, 2014, page 8).
Taiwanese need no reminding about how much plastic production harms the environment and their health (“Economic prosperity often comes with a price,” Aug. 2, 2010, page 8).
About 5 trillion pieces of plastic now pollute the world’s oceans (“New research quantifies the oceans’ plastic problem,” Dec. 13, 2014, page 6), and perhaps even more (“Laundry lint polluting the world’s oceans,” Oct. 29, 2011, page 9). Many ocean animals become entangled in or eat the plastic, thinking it is food, to then die a torturous death of suffocation or starvation (“Society organizes series of coastal clean-up activities,” Sep. 14, 2012, page 3).
All that plastic junk gets washed onto Taiwan’s shores (“Garbage damages Taiwan’s coastline,” Dec. 1, 2013, page 8; “Coasts severely polluted: survey,” Dec. 24, 2013, page 3).
It is deeply disturbing how polluted with trash, most of it plastic, the nation’s rivers and beaches are (“Taiwan’s trash troubles,” Jan. 11, 2012, page 8; “Study finds plastic waste a pervasive problem on beaches,” Nov. 26, 2014, page 3).
Some environmental heroes such as Daniel Gruber have collected some of this rubbish (“A new way of thinking about litter,” Aug. 29, 2013, page 12; “Thousands clean up 3,700 tonnes of waste from coast,” Sep. 29, 2013, page 3), but these Sisyphean efforts can never hold off the garbage tsunami.
Given that plastic residues are now in every ecosystem, especially aquatic ecosystems (“Nation’s rivers contaminated by plasticizers,” Jun. 19, 2011, page 3), these residues consequently enter the food chain and our bodies, causing various health problems, e.g. harming nerve growth and children’s sexual development, decreasing sperm counts, and possibly causing cancers, cardiovascular diseases and allergies (“Researchers warn of EDC harming wildlife, humans,” June 5, 2009, page 2; “The problem with phthalates,” Oct. 24, 2010, page 12).
How can this plastic menace be stopped?
Obviously, more education about plastic pollution in particular and environmental problems in general is part and parcel of any solution. However, environmental education is still almost non-existent in Taiwan (“Misguided priorities,” May 21, 2010, page 8).
Since my arrival in 2009, many of my university students confirmed that they were never taught any facts about many of the great environmental problems, such as plastic pollution or ocean acidification.
Klaus Bardenhagen suggested introducing compulsory fees for plastic bags (“Taiwan can improve in 2010,” Jan. 5, 2010, page 8) and fees could easily be extended to just about any throwaway item.
However, fees will not stop many people from buying and then throwing away these items, (Google “Why charging for plastic bags doesn’t work”), and the same is true for discounts to customers who supply their own cup (“One plastic cup at a time,” Jun. 17, 2011, page 8).
Such efforts amount to very little, as plastic is still needed for most packaging.
Rather, the long-term goal must be that either all plastics are to be recycled, or whenever that is not possible, then the plastics must be biodegradable so that they do not accumulate in the world’s ecosystems.
This so-called cradle-to-cradle approach proposes a truly circular and non-toxic materials economy.
Taiwan could pledge to be one of the first countries to prevent plastic from entering the environment (“Aspiring to radical goals important for sustainable development,” Jan. 1, page 9).
Given that biodegradable plastics do not yet fulfill many of the requirements that are needed for both packaging and degradation (“Bio-plastic proving not so eco-friendly,” April 28, 2008, page 11), more research into bio-plastics needs to be financed.
Research funds are also urgently needed to find ways to remove plastic pollution (“Cleaning up ‘plastic soup,’” July 15, 2014, page 12).
Given the global scale of the problem, my recycling efforts or Gruber’s cleanup efforts do not even tickle the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully they have symbolic significance as harbingers of change.
So next time you stand in line in some shop, ask yourself: Who is mad? The foreigner with his reused plastic bags and rucksack, or the Taiwanese with their throwaway mentality? You decide.
Bruno Walther is Taipei Medical University assistant professor for global health, environmental science and sustainability.
As Taiwan is facing global crises from the COVID-19 pandemic to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is again time to take stock. In terms of public health, Taiwan has made it through the COVID-19 challenge quite well. By combining masking, vaccinations and border controls, it has achieved a sufficiently protective herd immunity and is expected to end quarantine requirements for incoming travelers by the end of the summer. What about Ukraine? Here, Taiwan must assess four key players in its region. The first is Russia, which must be seen as a developing enemy. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine declared
During an online keynote speech on June 12, Legislative Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) said that when he was premier, he already knew that the Yun Feng (雲峰, Cloud Peak) medium-range supersonic land-attack cruise missile developed in Taiwan could reach Beijing. If Beijing were to attack Taiwan, Taipei would respond by firing the missiles and China would regret its aggression, he said. You’s comments were met by immediate criticism from political commentator Lai Yueh-tchienn (賴岳謙), who said that the Cloud Peak relied on guidance from the US’ Global Positioning System (GPS) to find its target. If war broke out in the Taiwan Strait,
China’s third aircraft carrier, the Fujian, was launched on Friday. With a total displacement of more than 80,000 tonnes, the vessel is the largest of China’s three aircraft carriers. According to reports, the Fujian is about 300m long and 78m across at its widest point. It is conventionally powered, with a maximum speed of about 30 knots (55.6kph) and can carry 60 aircraft — including about 40 fighter jets, helicopters and airborne early warning and control aircraft. The deck of the carrier is equipped with an electromagnetic catapult system, which can speed up the take-off and landing of fighter jets. Once it
Two awards for contribution to the study of Sinology were announced on Monday. The first was for British art historian Jessica Rawson, named this year’s winner of the Tang Prize in Sinology. The Tang Prize was established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑). The second was for Slovenian Sinologist Jana Rosker, who won the Taiwan-France Cultural Award — established by the Ministry of Culture and the Institut de France’s Academy of Moral and Political Sciences — for her work introducing Taiwanese philosophy to Europe. Rosker said that Taiwan has integrated Western philosophy and Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism into a