In the first installment of the animated movie franchise Toy Story, a sign on Buzz Lightyear’s arm shows that he is “made in Taiwan.” Some people consider this to be the pride of Taiwan, while others disagree.
In the past, official inspection reports of toys made in Taiwan, whether for export or for domestic sales, often showed excessive amounts of plasticizer and heavy metals.
Taiwan is a major toy exporter as well as a major manufacturer of plastic products. Plastic is a polymer and can be molded into any shape.
Humanity has a long history of using natural polymers, but it was not until the beginning of last century that the US started to extract phenols from coal tar to produce synthetic plastics, thus opening the world up to the age of massive plastics consumption.
Having built factories that process crude oil and turn it into plastic materials, petrochemical businesses started to promote plastic products for the mass market, such as plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Soon after polypropylene (PP) was polymerized in 1954, the material was quickly applied to manufacturing drinking straws to replace grass and paper straws.
With plastic straws making people’s daily lives more convenient, manufacturers also came up with many interesting shapes and functions for straws, thus facilitating a drastic increase in the use of disposable utensils.
The Environmental Protection Administration estimates that Taiwan uses as many as 3 billion plastic straws each year, making it the third-largest user in the world.
The massive amount of plastic straws discarded every day has made waste treatment increasingly difficult. Only a small number of single-use plastic straws are incinerated, while the majority remain in the environment and cause the biomagnification of toxicity at the top of the ecological chain, posing a big threat to marine creatures.
Considering that incinerators are the main facilities for waste treatment today, how to reduce their burden is a major question.
While there is a lot of room for improvement in the nation’s garbage sorting and recycling mechanism to help reduce the amount of waste that is incinerated, it is relatively difficult to sort plastic straws, as they are small in size.
Therefore, banning single-use plastic straws is a concrete way to not only reduce waste, but also the pollutants emitted by incinerators.
Health authorities conduct random health safety checks on plastic straws, including examinations of the material and solubility tests of colorants and plasticizers. Even though most manufacturers comply with regulations, the potential health impact of plastic straws on public health cannot be ignored.
Plastic straws are mostly used for drinking. Most straws are made of PP, but some are made of other plastics. When the beverage is too hot or acidic, plastic straws could yield PP and plasticizers, which — once consumed by humans — interfere with the endocrine system in a way similar to hormones. This is why plasticizers are called environmental hormones.
Studies have shown that the plasticizer concentration found in pregnant women in Taiwan is higher than it is in other nations. The higher concentration causes an abnormal secretion of thyroid hormones in pregnant women and affects the development of the infant’s central nervous system.
Apart from pregnant woman, who are the biggest risk group, children with long-term exposure to plasticizers are even more easily affected, as they eat more frequently than adults do, and also breathe faster and have faster metabolisms than adults.
The effects can include abnormal development of gender characteristics, and the chemicals could also facilitate the development of asthma, allergies and diabetes, among other immune system disorders.
It is also worth mentioning that as much as half of the nation’s first-graders have caries, according to preliminary examinations conducted nationwide by the Ministry of Education’s K-12 Education Administration.
Children with tooth decay tend to refrain from smiling and often cover their mouth when speaking for fear of being laughed at by classmates.
Consequently, parents are often worried about cavities affecting their children’s personality development.
Although the government provides subsidies for sealing fissures in first-graders’ first molar, this is by no means a fundamental solution. When children consume sugary drinks, using straws, they are likely to get cavities and also become overweight. Only by limiting their exposure to sugary drinks, keeping a balanced diet and maintaining tooth hygiene will children grow up to be healthy and happy adults.
Creating an agenda to ban plastic straws is an international trend. Such policies not only benefit the environment, but also have a profound significance, as they improve a nation’s health.
Specific uses of plastic straws — for medical purposes, for instance — should of course be considered and allowed.
Authorities should also propose replacement alternatives and help businesses develop straws from materials that can be naturally dissolved and are not harmful to the environment and human body, such as sugarcane and corn starch.
Strong support should be given to the government to draw up an agenda for banning plastic straws and other plastic food wrapping materials to reduce the consumption of plastics as much as possible and create an opportunity to fundamentally change the nation’s high reliance on the petrochemical industry for its economic development.
Wong Ruey-hong is a professor at Chung Shan Medical University’s School of Public Health.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming.
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