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Taiwan’s plastic-free future begins with grassroots change

By Lin Fang-tzsu 

 

The plastic-free future of Plastic Kingdom

A lively green movement stirs in the serene and mountainous Taiwanese township of Puli. Since 2018, many busy shoppers at the Puli's Fresh Market 3 (埔里第三市場) are politely rejecting vendors’ offer of plastic bags, opting instead to use their own reusable carriers. Each plastic-free purchase comes with a point for their eco-card, which can then be redeemed for a variety of environmentally friendly items.

The community-organized Puli PM2.5 Reduction Association (PPRA, 埔里PM2.5空汙減量自救會) has been tracking the worsening air quality and consumer reliance on plastic bags that stem from practices at the Puli's Fresh Market 3 since 2014. To address these behavior-driven pollution, the association partnered with National Chi Nan University’s Shui Sha Lian Research Center for Humanities Innovation and Social Practice to transform the market into a pedestrian-friendly area with a low carbon footprint.

The average person in Taiwan discards a plastic straw every three days, which adds up to a staggering 8 million straws in one day. This exodus of 3 billion straws per year is why Taiwan remains on global lists for oceanic waste, of which straws are among the top-five items most commonly found thrown away on Taiwanese beaches.

Now, more nations around the world are stepping up their efforts to combat plastic waste. For example, when the European Union implemented an alliance-wide market ban on single-use plastics made from certain materials starting this July, France supplemented with paper boxes while international companies have successively come up with new solutions to comply with the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive and remain in the European Economic Area.

In other feats of transitioning into the circular economy model, American and Indian researchers are developing new edible packaging while British food scientists are turning crustacean shells into biodegradable plastic. Over here at the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese grannies and aunties are starting a grassroots eco-revolution with the support of government-mandated green measures.

 

Taiwan's plastic reduction policies

It was the year 2007 when plastic bags were no longer freely available in Taiwan. The central government began implementing measures to combat the nation’s addiction to plastic, culminating with 14 business categories banned from offering free plastic bags by 2017. The scope now includes pharmacies, medical equipment stores, bookstores, laundromats, tea/coffee shops, and bakeries.

The people of Taiwan have begun to heed the global call for plastic reduction, and more conscience consumers are now traveling with their own straws, drink carriers, and grocery bags. Their expectations in turn drive corporations to modify their services with straw-free drink lids, easy-to-tear plastic film, or paper straws. Even when the modification still requires plastic, McDonald’s lid variation came with a 16% decrease in plastic usage, according to Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) statistics.

All taxable business establishments were banned from issuing free plastic bags in 2020, while dine-in services no longer provide plastic straws or utensils. Many also offer discounts to those who bring their own reusable (drink) containers. All single-use plastics will be available on a paid-only basis by 2025, and eliminated entirely from the consumption cycle by 2030.

 

Shopping for best green market practices

Taiwan’s eco-consciousness movement is unfurling organically through communities like Puli. The association’s first outreach operation was centered on promoting pedestrian-based shopping, so more people would become accustomed to parking their scooters before enjoying a stroll through Puli's Fresh Market 3, while campaigning for less single-use utensils, vessels, and bags.

When the volunteers explain to members of the Taiwanese public that these measures are aimed at lowering the market’s carbon footprint and air pollution, they are often greeted with polite puzzlement, until the clarification of how the process of creation to disposal of plastics all involve carbon emissions.

Empowered by the concept of how their personal choices can affect the planet, the people of Puli began to incorporate reusable containers and bags with their daily routines. The eco-card with its exchangeable rewards and straight-forward tasks for points also became an easy way to conceptualize new lifestyle changes.

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Eco-card design

The campaign began amidst many frustrations and challenges, for both volunteers and donors. Communicating environmental concerns to store owners and market vendors, for example. “If possible, could you remind customers next time to turn off their engines while they shop?” 

From the store owners: “Ha! They are only stopping by, and why does it matter if it’s only for a moment. Ask them to mess with the ignition key and they’ll drive away.”

From the busy shoppers: “I just don’t have time, I need to go pick up my kids and make dinner. If this is so inconvenient for you, I will bring my business elsewhere.”

So the volunteers then try another angle: “Can you try selling items ‘naked,’ without offering plastic bags or utensils?” Only to be brushed off with: “Nah, people always ask for them. A lot of people think, ‘I’m giving you money, is it so hard to receive a bag in return?’” 

“So what would you be more comfortable with?” Often after engaging in dialogue with the volunteers, vendors do soften their stance and begin to re-consider their behavior. “We can only try asking beforehand, whether a plastic bag is needed, and omit if they answer with a ‘no’.”

But for most buyers, convenience remain a top concern: ready-to-go packaging and meals accompanied by utensils save trouble and time. As mass behavior was hardly altered by the eco-card rewards program in the association’s first push that drew over 300 people, the decision was made to extend the campaign.

In reviewing feedback, the association discovered that most vendors believe that a third party should be responsible for communicating these new concepts to buyers, whereas on the consumer side, they view it as a third party’s duty to persuade vendors to provide more incentives such as monetary discounts in exchange for turning down plastic bags.  

Even when both sides see it as the other’s responsibility to take the lead, the association followed the lead of the passionate volunteers and decided to launch a second wave of card-related promotions in August; guidelines will also be amended accordingly to first trial results.

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Left to Right:

The market offers public trolleys that can be rented for a refundable deposit of NT$10.

Free, reusable shopping bags are available within the market area; please return to the service counter after use.

People can also donate their extra plastic bags to a public cache for other market shoppers to use.

 

Lifestyle changes for the betterment of all

“We weren’t going to do this twice, but some members of the public came to us and said, ‘This is a good event but a run-time of one month is too fleeting for most of us to participate’ and that helped change our minds.” Volunteers add that they hope through word of mouth, the campaign will gain more traction this round. The duration will also be extended to 1.5 months, from Aug. 11 to Sept. 30, 2021. 

They also share their favorite moments from the first campaign: parents bringing their children to the market to observe the scheme, regular customers changing their habits, and participants vouching to keep up the lifestyle changes after the promotional exchanges end, like the impressive “Eco A-mah (環保阿嬤).”

Eco A-mah may be in her seventies, but she continues to surprise on a daily basis. Her ingenuity revives chip bags (as re-sealable carriers for freshwater clams) and rice bags (as fruits and produce sacks). Her transformation complete, she divulges how the initial spark of motivation came from her daughter-in-law.

Eco A-mah used to return home every day from the wet market with a new set of plastic bags, until her daughter-in-law decided to stage an intervention. Not only were there verbal cues — “Ma, that’s not good for the planet!” — there were written reminders as well. Notes with prompts like “Please don’t bring more home!” and “Recycle or reuse, respect Earth” began appearing around their house.

It was a tough pill to swallow, and Eco A-mah even chose to hide the plastic bags she brought home instead of facing another round of gentle nagging. Yet after a period of adjustment, bringing her saved-up plastic bags and rice sacks to the market became second nature to the mother-in-law. The intergenerational persuasion worked.

Folks like Eco A-mah have stayed true to their word, because they believe that the changes are for a better tomorrow, and the association began hearing from other regional groups interested in replicating the success of Puli’s Fresh Market 3 as well.

For example, the Taichung branch of Homemakers United Foundation (Taichung HUF, 台中主婦聯盟) even visited Nantou during their six-month development of creating an environmental campaign for Xiangshang Market (向上市場) in central Taiwan.

“Even if we are a fledgling group with not many members or resources, they valued our experience and after some adjustments, they began investing a lot of time and people to solicit donations and raffle prizes and ended up holding an amazing event at Xiangshang,” volunteers say of Taichung HUF’s visit.

Modesty aside, the joint efforts of NCNU’s Shui Sha Lian Research Center for Humanities Innovation and Social Practice and the Puli PM2.5 Reduction Association have started a series of reverberations that are spreading across central Taiwan, with more and more members of the public heeding their call for eco-friendly lifestyle changes. Taichung HUF was even invited to present Xiangshang Market as a case study at a recent EPA event.

Our individual existences consolidated, communities and networks can come together to affect real change, say the volunteers. Take a moment to consider how personal behavior can be altered in support of a greater common cause — specifically, that of lowering carbon emissions and plastic waste to save our planet. We can all learn a thing or two from Eco A-mah.

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