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Community-driven solutions for curbing air pollution

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At 9am, Puli's Fresh Market 3 (埔里第三市場) is already bustling with hawkers vying for attention with shouts like "30 dollars per kilo!" and "come this way for the freshest selection!" barely making a dint in the action-packed marketplace. Everyone is looking to score the best deal, and when home and dinner is ahead, why would anyone pay attention to the spluttering exhaust pipes behind one's back?

A collective of housewives & shoppers

In 2014, a team of mothers living in the central Taiwanese township of Puli established the Puli PM2.5 Reduction Association (PM2.5空汙減量自救會). They were tired of worrying about their hometown's worsening air quality, and decided to pitch in to help the community.

This particular 2018 campaign started with a casual comment made during a team meeting: "The air quality at Market 3 isn't that great these days, right?" The ensuing consensus was a wake-up call for many who held similar concerns but never shared them.

By 2015, the association's volunteers were working with students from National Chi Nan University's (NCNU) Shui Sha Lian Research Center for Humanities Innovation and Social Practice, conducting surveys and fieldwork at the marketplace. Comparison of air samples taken from different locations — specifically from Fresh Market 3's center and corners — reveals that everyday customers such as housewives and homemakers have all become unwitting victims of aerosol pollution.

By 2017, students were stumped by the fact that the majority of vendors were consumed by poor business and had little idle time to care about the air. Their surveys, however, reflect that environmental concerns such as dodging scooters in tight spaces and public hygiene were among the top reasons why local shoppers have migrated elsewhere.

A student team even produced a 16-minute documentary that strung together interviews with buyers and sellers, survey respondents, and preliminary analysis of how to transform Fresh Market 3. The diverse viewpoints captured on camera resonated with many viewers in Puli.

"Everyone knows about the need for lowering emissions, but no one is doing anything about it." Volunteers such as Huang Tzu-yuan (黃資媛), who works as a case manager for NCNU's Shui Sha Lian Research Center, were done lamenting. If soft tactics like campus awareness campaigns over the past two, three years weren't enough to affect change, they were going to talk directly to the people of Puli.

Equipped with a special subsidy from Taiwan's EPA, their Fresh Market 3 campaign kicked off with three-phase workshops that began with NCNU students carrying pollutant-measuring equipment into the market area on the first day of class. Field observations and team discussions culminated in four priority areas for market transformation: public health, transportation design, air quality, and spatial management.

In the second class, students drafted up a new survey based on the four identified priority areas, soliciting sellers and buyers alike for feedback and visions on the overall environment and arrangements of the marketplace. The month-long project collected about 300 surveys over four weekends during phase one.

Phase two centered on raising public awareness over air pollution through activism. Students placed inconspicuous bicycles and shopping carts equipped with PM2.5 sensors in different parts of the marketplace, in which the patented device by NCNU Information Management Professor Day Rong-fuh (戴榮賦) would show elevated levels of pollutants whenever a car or motorcycle passed by.

Association volunteers also met with different storeowners and vendors who shared similar eco-sentiments, and their discussions paved the way for the 2018 launch of their formal campaign to transform the market into a pedestrian-friendly area with a low carbon footprint.

Air quality is a public good & responsibility

"How is cutting down emissions any of my business? Isn't that factory stuff?" or "I'm just a citizen, what can I do? " are the most common responses from the people surveyed, but nonchalance is no match against respiratory ailments, asthma, diabetes, dry eye syndrome, inflammations, cardiovascular diseases, and gastro anomalies.

Those who ignore the growing public problem as unwitting culprits still suffer from the invisible, yet deadly, side effects. Numbers crunched by NCNU students however, paint a grim picture of reality that made it easier to understand.

Moreover, it's not just Fresh Market 3, it's Puli Township as a whole that has scored consistently and dangerously high on the pollution charts. Nantou may not be categorized as an industrialized zone, but airborne contaminants drift across county borders and settle in Puli basin, trapped by ocean drafts and the Central Mountain Range.

Then there's the emissions from burning paper offerings and agricultural byproducts. Pastoral Puli is known for its folk temples and farm products, and air quality hits new lows during winter amid flaming piles of organic debris, water bamboo shells, and ghost money. Unless rain falls or strong winds arrive, the township is a distant cousin to its usual green self.

Driven by everyday reality, association and humanities center continue to search for new ways to lower emissions. Recent successes include visiting the office of the county magistrate, local schools, and community temples. Local burnings have correspondingly dwindled in numbers.

Safeguarding this public good and responsibility is more than just a government's duty: good air quality can be upheld by all members of the community. From taking the stairs over the elevator to choosing mass transportation instead of driving, we can all contribute to a fairer climate and future.

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Map of Puli's Fresh Market 3

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Posters on green lifestyle tips distributed by the association.

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