During the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck was unveiled at Greater Kaohsiung’s Glory Pier. This conceptual artwork has brought happiness to Greater Kaohsiung residents and enabled the municipality to be seen in a brand-new light. However, the implications the floating creation has for the relationship between humans and their environment are being ignored.
Hofman’s ducks used to be made from natural rubber, but since 2007, they have all been made from polyvinyl chloride, a plastic more commonly known as PVC. The duck in Greater Kaohsiung — the largest version made in Asia so far — was made from an extra-thick PVC plastic sheet 840m long and weighing more than 1,000kg.
The duck has brought Greater Kaohsiung’s hotels, restaurants and transport industry several hundred million dollars in business and is expected to generate a large amount of merchandise also made from PVC. Even libraries are rumored to be planning promotions to give toy ducks to book borrowers.
Products made from PVC contain large amounts of plasticizers and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. These substances stop the duck sculpture from cracking as it weathers the elements and make it more pliable, but they can also lead to birth defects, lowered intelligence and neurological diseases among people that are exposed to them. The process of manufacturing PVC is also potentially hazardous, with carcinogenic toxins and pollutants often the byproducts.
Three years ago, it was revealed that the groundwater beneath Formosa Plastics’ petrochemical plant in Greater Kaohsiung’s Renwu Township (仁武) had levels of PVC ingredients such as ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride that were more than 302,000 times the legally allowed amount. It was reported that fixing the problem would take at least 20 years and would cost more than NT$700 million (US$23.7 million).
There have also been reports that workers in PVC factories suffer from higher rates of liver and kidney cancer than the general population. PVC is a material that is really bad for the environment, people’s health and future generations.
It is unfortunate that no arrangements were made with Hofman to use more environmentally friendly materials when the city was fighting to host the duck. However, it is not too late to take precautions for the future.
The Greater Kaohsiung Government can encourage the cultural and creative industries to develop products without using PVC, while the public sector can lead the way by doing things like not giving away PVC ducks and providing assistance in the centralized treatment of products made from the plastic to get the public to minimize PVC use and provide a healthier environment for future generations.
Extreme care must be taken to recycle Hofman’s duck properly when the exhibit concludes. It cannot under any circumstances be buried or burned at a low temperature, as this would release toxins such as dioxin into the environment.
What consumers can do to help minimize PVC use is to stop buying products made from the plastic and keep PVC ducks out of their bathtubs. They must ensure that their children do not put PVC products in their mouths.
By being vigilant and self-disciplined, the public is capable of greatly decreasing the amount of the plastic used in the nation, protecting plants and allowing future generations to grow up in a healthy environment.
This is what the giant rubber duck was meant to teach us about love and peace between humans and the environment.
Tsai Hui-hsun is president of Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan.
Translated by Drew Cameron