Green Living: The Fight Against Plastic in Taiwan
In Taiwan, life is built on a foundation of plastic. Actually, I can’t imagine life in Taiwan without plastic. Meals, postcards, and even diplomas are wrapped in it. I tried to go a week without a plastic bag moving from a vendor’s hand to mine or even puncturing the plastic, vacuum-sealed lid of my bubble tea – I couldn’t even go a day. But how harsh should my righteous, liberally educated rage go to condemn Taiwan’s environmental practice?
Where I’m from definitely makes a difference: I’m an Oregonian, born and raised. Growing up there means that recycling is just as important as drinking milk for strong bones. I have years of earth days under my belt (actually, every day was earth day) where I was told tales of environmental tragedy: strangled otters, asphyxiated birds, tree branches decorated by plastic bags. Green living is my history, identity, and cause all wrapped up in one.
I tried to go a week without a plastic bag moving from a vendor’s hand to mine or even puncturing the plastic, vacuum-sealed lid of my bubble tea – I couldn’t even go a day.
Taiwan is a different world when it comes to plastic. It is different than other countries where waste – plastic included – is not collected because of inadequate infrastructure. The opposite, actually. It’s like a game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ trying to find litter on the street. Garbage trucks patrol the neighborhoods playing tunes like ice-cream trucks, and public recycling bins are always well used. But side-by-side with this are the plastic bags handed out like candy. Taiwan has integrated and improved plastic so that it compliments daily life to the point of dependency. After I got used to the shock of life submerged in plastic, I had to marvel at the perfect marriage between the two.
I ride my bike everywhere, and often stop to get breakfast on my way. The street vendor has delicious danbing omelets made to order, and hands it to me in folded paper inside a plastic bag. Sometimes, on especially hungry days, I have a few steamed baozi to go with it, and each additional order gets an extra bag. The bags hang on my handlebars as I weave through traffic, keeping my food dry from the rain and my fingers clean from grease when I stop to eat it.
Lunch is a block away, with endless opportunities for delicious food. Most are sit-down ma and pop restaurants, but regardless most still use disposable chopsticks encased in plastic. Sometimes, if I go to a famous restaurant (there are many in Tainan) it will actually be more expensive to dine in than to order take away because of limited space. So even if I don’t expect to, I might find myself saddled with a few plastic bags carrying lunch away.
No day is complete in Taiwan without a tea, juice, or anything consumed through a straw. Taiwan, and especially Tainan with its access to unbelievably fresh fruit, has perfected drink making. While the perfection is undisputed, the packaging is appallingly artificial in comparison to the fresh tapioca pearls and blended mango. Please note: plastic cup, vacuum-seal plastic lid, straw with wrapper, and perfectly sized bag to carry beverage. There were times I refused the bag, but I was left with a hand dripping in condensation and could not master riding a bike while holding both the drink and handlebars. Call me uncommitted, but I caved and now just take the bag.
There were times I refused the bag, but I was left with a hand dripping in condensation and could not master riding a bike while holding both the drink and handlebars.
Aside from being the constant companion of everything edible, plastic goes with most other parts of life. Buying a postcard? Book? Anything paper? It will be in plastic, to protect against the intensely humid climate. Speaking of which, there are these rainstorms that arrive out of nowhere. As soon as it starts to rain, umbrellas pop open everywhere like birds startled into flight, scooter drivers pause to robe themselves in plastic ponchos, and vendors give out twice as many plastic bags to stave off the rain.
So this leaves Taiwan in a conundrum. The volume of waste from plastic is huge, but the waste management is so effective that such dependency on plastic doesn’t seem like a issue. What could be considered part of the solution is actually helping cover up the problem. I can’t solve it; it’s not my place, nor do I have the power. But continuing the conversation puts us all on the way to sustainability.
Top Photo By Kah-Wai Lin