How Did Taiwan Become an Environmentally Conscious Society?

How Did Taiwan Become an Environmentally Conscious Society?
Photo Credit: CNA
What you need to know

How did Taiwanese become so receptive of plastic-reduction policies? It might have to do with Taiwan's education, colonial history, culture, and even religious influence.

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Shortly after Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) announced that plastic straws will be banned for most indoor dining venues, a Taiwanese politician posted a video on Facebook of her attempting — and failing — to drink bubble tea with a spoon.

Her video received a huge backlash from the online community, with more “angry reactions” than “likes” and multiple comments linking to videos of straws found in sea turtles.

The internet reaction offers only a small glimpse into how much plastic waste reduction has made its way into Taiwan’s public consciousness. EPA expanded its plastic bag ban last year to bar an additional 80,000 merchants from providing plastic bags for free. Since then, consumers from all age groups can be seen carrying metal straws and reusable tumblers among other trendy environmental merchandise.

量販店減塑商品專區陳列各式吸管
Photo Credit: CNA

Even companies outside the legal purview of the plastic straw ban, such as bubble tea stalls, are proactively shifting to plastic straw alternatives. All of this came after a series of top-down regulations restricting plastic use, but most importantly, Taiwanese companies are also responding to their highly environmentally conscious consumers.

Taiwanese consumers’ positive attitude towards plastic reduction made it stand out from its neighbors—Japan, Korea, and the coastal regions of China, where plastic reduction is met with indifference or resistance. This is a story of how Taiwan, traditionally plagued by political stalemate, managed to turn environmental protection into something “cool” and desirable within two decades.

An Education That Turned Zero-Waste Into a Habit

In the 1980s, dumping household trash into rivers or just outside on the streets were the norm in Taiwan. Today, poking fun at plastic-reduction policies is social and political suicide. In the past 20 years, education played a big part in shifting people’s attitudes towards waste.

Many millennials today would recall that their schools actively promoted a zero-waste lifestyle. It ranges from saving electricity to making reusable cutlery and bento boxes mandatory. Students also adhere strictly to recycling instructions, including folding used milk cartons and plastic bags to reduce the trash volume. Food wastage is also heavily regulated, and in many cases teachers would require students to finish all of their food before they could go on to their precious noon-time naps.

These actions, however, are not always packaged as “doing environmental good.'' Most teachers simply make environmental practices classroom rules, and while students blindly adhere, the environmental message inevitably gets lost in the systemization and stern implementation of these rules.

學生籌組跨校環保隊暢談理念(1)
Photo Credit: CNA
Student activists speak at Taoyuan about environmental awareness and conserving Taiwan's coral reef system.

Indeed, some of these waste-reduction measures might not have been implemented for environmental reasons at all. In 2011, Taiwan experienced one of its most serious food safety episodes, where plasticizer, a toxin often found in plastic products, was discovered in food items. Many consumers have since shifted away from the use of plastic products for health concerns.

Waste-reduction practices in Taiwanese schools might also be Japan’s colonial legacy. Students in Japan are often asked to reduce food waste and recycle. These practices stem from cultural customs to make full use of resources, one inherited from Japan’s post-war poverty, according to Yuki Nakamura and Sakuko Sugawara, university students from Kobe and Kanagawa.

Like Japan, Taiwan is also an island nation, which naturally makes recycling and reusing resources necessary. Environmental practices thus have a long history in Taiwan due to its geographical constraints.

“It’s just a kind of responsibility, something that must be done, there isn’t really why,” said Hsieh Yu-qi, a high school student from Taichung.

Her sentiment resonates with many Taiwanese students who called waste reduction a “moral obligation,” likely because reducing waste was literally imposed as “obligations” by teachers in their schooling years.

In many societies, feeling powerless in face of a global climate catastrophe can be a formidable roadblock to action. Taiwanese schools’ drilling environmental practices removed that roadblock for many by turning these practices into personal habits.

Religion Appeals to a Larger Audience than Government Initiatives

Li Wei Wei is a music student from Nantou. Like most Taiwanese students, she is environmentally conscious—she picks up misplaced trash even when she’s overseas, out of habit developed from her schooling years.

Li’s grandmother, however, is also environmentally conscious. She returns plastic bags to wet market vendors after she uses them. But Li’s grandmother didn’t go through an environmental education. Quite the contrary, she grew up at a time when trash was everywhere on the streets because there was not a single trash incinerator in Taiwan.

Li’s grandmother developed her environmental consciousness through television programs, specifically those produced by Tzu Chi (慈濟), an influential Buddhist Foundation in Taiwan. Tzu Chi’s website encourages “people to see the streets as places of religious practice,” which involves “reducing carbon footprint.” This is an organization with a primary audience aged between 40 and 80, and the impact of its tagline “reducing carbon footprint” on Taiwan’s older generation is unimaginable.

花蓮姊顧腦麻妹 攜手赴環保站任志工
Photo Credit: CNA
Volunteers categorize plastic bottles in a Tzu Chi recycling station in Hualien.

“The influence of Tzu Chi is actually wider than government initiatives,” said Chou Ju (周儒), a professor from the Institute of Environmental Education at the National Taiwan Normal University.

Tzu Chi has a team of 88,254 environmental volunteers as of 2017, regularly participating in recycling activities and street cleanups. Each of Tzu Chi’s “recycling stations,” located all over Taiwan, attracts a few hundred middle-aged and elderly volunteers on the second Sunday of every month to categorize recyclable trash.

Other Buddhist groups with a large number of followers, like the Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) and Fo Guang Shan (佛光山), also have their own environmental initiatives and promote “spiritual environmentalism” where worshippers allegedly reach greater internal peace through doing environmental good.

Taiwan Is a Self-critical and Highly Receptive Society

Domestic discussions on plastic reduction often revolve around this feeling that Taiwan is “behind” other countries, and many have used this self-deprecating narrative to mobilize Taiwanese to environmental action.

The EPA, for instance, still compares Taiwan’s latest plastic-reduction policies to those in Japan, Korea, and neighboring countries, even though Taiwan’s cultural attitude towards environmental protection is far more progressive. Local media also like to highlight the high amount of waste Taiwan produces as an ongoing self-criticism. As a result, the desire to “catch up” to more advanced societies is constantly in the back of people’s minds.

海岸快篩調查 記錄員山子分洪道垃圾堆積情景
Photo Credit: CNA

Unlike Taiwan, many in Japan and Korea consider the zero-waste lifestyle a Westernized concept. Environmental activism in Shanghai is also mostly dominated by people with exposure to Western culture such as students from international schools or expatriates, according to Lucy Zhu, a university student from Shanghai. Japan, Korea, and China’s historical tension with Western-imposed ideologies may then partly explain why waste-reduction hasn’t caught on in these places.

“Taiwan is a place that can quickly absorb new things, be that new ideologies or consumption behavior,” Professor Chou said. As such, Taiwanese never saw “zero waste” as a concept from the West. People simply want to absorb best practices overseas, whether they are Western or Eastern.

In the meantime, waste-reduction efforts in Taiwan still rely heavily on consumers, and plastic-producing giants remain unleashed. Plastic production and sales figures have also yet to drop in two decades despite ramped-up policies. Online debates about the best alternative to bubble tea plastic straws continue to rage on. Still, Taiwan has come a long way to have finally combined social, educational, and legal changes to foster an environmentally conscious public.

READ NEXT: Seediq, an Endangered Aboriginal Tribe and Language in Taiwan

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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