Taiwan Green Bulletin

It’s been called a ticking time bomb, yet we use it every day without a second’s thought.

What am I talking about? Plastic.

Plastic waste chokes seabirds and marine life; it swirls in giant garbage islands in the oceans; tiny toxic fragments end up in our seafood. Another nasty trait is that it lingers for literally centuries. The plastic problem isn’t going anywhere, and the more we use the stuff, the bigger the problem becomes.

One way of delaying when this ticking time bomb eventually blows is to discourage the use of single-use plastic bags by imposing a fee.

Taiwan, one of the first countries in the world to start banning free plastic bags (back in 2002), will expand the number of retailers the ban applies to fivefold to 100,000 retailers from Jan. 1 next year.

Basically, the ban is being extended from mainstream shops (think 7-11, department stores, and the public sector) to specialized outlets such as chemists, electronics, and beverage vendors (let’s hope those bubble tea drinkers finally stop using little plastic bags to carry their plastic cup, plastic straw and plastic lid — before I blow my own lid!). But that still leaves lots of small businesses free to dish out plastic bags for free, such as traditional markets, breakfast joints and Taiwan’s world famous night markets.

Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) said it hopes plastic bag usage will fall by another 1.5 billion a year as a result of the ban extension. That’s good news, isn’t it?

Green Bulletin grabbed Yen Ning, project leader for Greenpeace’s anti-plastics campaign in Taiwan, to ask how effective this ban will be at defusing the plastic waste time bomb.

Green Bulletin: Where do most of Taiwan’s plastic bags end up after they are thrown out?

Yen Ning: Plastic bags are always one of the top three items collected by Taiwan’s local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during beach clean-ups. Only 7 percent of plastic bags are recycled. Most municipal waste goes to the incinerator.

"Bringing your own container or cup to buy food and drink is the best thing an individual can do to reduce plastic waste." — ‎Oceans Campaigner and anti-plastics project leader at Greenpeace East Asia.

Green Bulletin: Will this new ban actually work?

YN: Greenpeace thinks this a step in the right direction, and we look forward to seeing a clear timeline for phasing out single-use plastic or tableware by next year. We need the EPA to set a clear goal of how much [reduction in] plastic usage we want to achieve. For example, in 2020, the average number of plastic bags per person in Taiwan should fall to 200 per year, and in 2025 decrease to 50 per person. (Currently it is 700-plus bags per person per year).

Green Bulletin: Wow! That’s a lot of bags. Can recycling solve this problem?

YN: Actually, recycling cannot solve the problem because of the characteristics of plastic — it can only be downgraded and recycled into other products. But to make those products, you need to add new plastic material as part of the process. Some industries make textiles from PET bottles, but during washing, microfibers will be washed away into the ocean. The best way is to reduce plastic waste is to cut consumption at source.

Green Bulletin: What about biodegradable plastic bags?

YN: Biodegradable bags are also listed in the plastic bag ban; customers need to pay for them. Biodegradable is one solution to decreasing plastic bag usage, however in Taiwan, we lack the compost fields in which to dispose of biodegradable bags — most biodegradable things are incinerated with other general waste and release dioxins…So the government should start setting up compost fields, and educate people how to recognize biodegradable material from general plastic.

Green Bulletin: What else should the government do to stop people using plastic bags?

YN: Increasing the levy will have a direct impact. The government should also encourage industry to develop non-toxic and environmentally friendly material to replace plastic, and expand the ban to more shops, including traditional markets (wet markets) and night markets.

Currently the EPA doesn't have actual numbers for plastic consumption, as a result there isn't any clear goal for plastic reduction or a policy on limiting its use. We are asking the EPA to work with experts or NGOs to set up a database of plastic waste (especially the waste on beaches) which can be monitored and reviewed regularly. Then we can use the data to make effective policy and make Taiwan a better place.

Green Bulletin: What can we do as individuals to stop using some much plastic?

YN: Bring your own container or cup to buy food and drink. When buying fruit, vegetables or meat, you can also bring your own container or reuse a plastic bag. It doesn’t sound very convenient but it is easily doable. We should all do this on behalf of the next generation.