Don't Let Taiwan Draw the Short Straw on Sustainability

Don't Let Taiwan Draw the Short Straw on Sustainability
Photo Credit: Lonely Whale
What you need to know

 Regulating single-use straws would put Taiwan on the map for having advanced environmental policy ahead of any other country in the region.

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Taiwan Green Bulletin

In the land of bubble tea, the plastic straw is ubiquitous in Taiwan. Every iced drink, fruit smoothie, cream sodden Frappuccino, or Venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato sugar-free syrup extra shot light ice no whip please comes with a planet of plastic to encase it and of course a plastic straw to inhale it through. Hole in the wall tea shops, fast food outlets, coffee shops, both chain and indie, to sit-down restaurants with nice tablecloths all seem to proffer that thin tube of pointless and polluting plastic.

According to local media, the country uses 3 billion of the things every year – which seems to me to be an under-estimation because with a 23 million population that comes out to 130 straws a year per person, which is only about one every three days. Those queues at the Comebuy tea and coffee outlets tell a different story!

This is a great opportunity for Taiwan. Regulating single-use straws would put the country on the map for having advanced environmental policy ahead of any other country in the region.

So start today. Even if it’s just always remembering to tell the wait staff you don’t want a straw in a sit-down restaurant that will help.

Taiwan’s leadership in recycling, and its failure to publicize this, has been written about elsewhere in these pages, but straws aren’t generally recycled – they are too small – they are either incinerated or end up washed up in our oceans. Their light weight may be part of their convenience but that just makes them more deadly as they can bob around long distances and end up hurting marine wildlife, like turtles and sea birds, and plastic endures for hundreds of years. Straws are the third most common plastic, after bottles and bottle caps found on Taiwan’s beaches. That’s even more common than bags, which are more often the focus of government regulations.

However, the tide – excuse the pun – may be changing.

Last month local media reported that the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) would “inhibit” tea shops from giving plastic straws, while also pointing out that straws take a full half a millennium to rot. It’s not clear what the EPA measures will entail – but it looks like the administration will simply instruct tea shops to require their staff to ask first if customers want a straw – a move in the right direction, sure, but probably not really enough by itself to significantly reduce straw consumption. They already routinely ask customers if they want a plastic bag – but, most people still say yes.

Earlier this month, a petition was posted on the National Development Council’s website urging the government impose a fee on single-use straws of NT$1 (US$0.03), similar to plastic bag charges. At the time of publication, the petition had collected 1,798 supporters. It needs 5,000 signatories by Dec. 19 for the proposal to be taken up by the government (only Taiwanese citizens can sign). NT$1 is better than nothing, but doesn’t seem like a huge deterrence. The implementation of a ban, however, will raise public awareness about the issue.

Apart from regulation, there are two approaches to tackling this problem. One is, educate or enforce shops to adopt better straw policies. The other is educate the public to have better straw habits. And that includes me and you.

What can you do?

  • Get into the habit of whenever you order a drink saying you don’t want a single-use straw. Once they put it in your drink and serve it, they can’t reuse it.
  • Bring your own re-usable straw if you really want to use a straw (it’s fiddly to clean, but a pipe-cleaner type brush is usually sold with reusable straws).
  • Urge your favourite teashop, cafes and restaurants to have a better straw policy (see below).
  • Tell your friends and family to start doing the same.
  • Bring your own flask/beaker if you want a takeaway drink and sip it!

What can restaurants and shops do?

  • Always ask the customer if they want or need a straw first; never just provide one. Put an environmental message on your menu or sign at the counter to explain why straws aren’t automatically provided.
  • Use reusable straws – glass, stainless steel, bamboo, silicon and titanium (can be used for hip replacements once discarded… well, maybe not… yet).
  • Use biodegradable straws. Paper, ice (for that extra chill on the lips), and plant-based plastics that will break down in a matter of months, rather than centuries. This is the best option for fast food outlets and tea shops who sell their drinks to go.
  • Just don’t use straws.
  • Offer discounts to those customers who bring their own cup or say no to a straw; or simply charge extra for a straw.

Taiwan has the goods. The News Lens reported last year that a Taiwanese student won a design award for his design for a foldable paper straw. A quick search online shows that there are manufacturers and suppliers in Taiwan selling biodegradable and reusable straws. There are already a handful of restaurants – usually vegan places – in Taipei that don’t use plastic straws.

Some of the biggest culprits are the chain stores – think Starbucks, McDonald’s and street-side hole-in-the-wall brands such as CoCo. An iced drink in Starbucks, even though it is imbibed on the premises, is served in a plastic space capsule with a straw. It took some insistence on my part earlier this year to get one barista to serve me an iced tea in a mug, sans straw. “It’s not what we are supposed to do, but we will make an exception in your case,” he explained, while the expression in his eyes clearly said: “batty foreigner.”

So start today. Even if it’s just always remembering to tell the wait staff you don’t want a straw in a sit-down restaurant that will help.

Don’t be a sucker. Say no to straws!