It's not often that an Asian country beats out the West with progressive environmental policy. Yet that's just what Taiwan has done, with regulations that have dramatically reduced use of what many consider a scourge - the plastic bag.
Single-use plastics, so ubiquitous in modern life and so prevalent across Asia, have become something of a novelty in this island nation since the country's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) implemented tough restrictions - namely, large fines against businesses that give away plastic bags, utensils, and Styrofoam and plastic food containers.
The final phase of the three-stage restrictions took effect in January 2003. Since then, EPA officials said this month, use of plastic shopping bags has been cut by 69 percent nationwide. Factoring in heavier use of paper bags, the agency says overall waste from shopping bags has dropped by 65 percent. Plastic tableware has nearly disappeared from the island, with usage dropping by 90 percent since the restrictions took effect. Overall, estimates show that Taiwan has reduced its solid-waste output by roughly 25 percent since the policies came into effect.
But environmentalists fear the Taiwan government may be trashing a good program with the recent move to drastically reduce the fines. On May 18, the Legislative Yuan approved a proposal to cut them from the original range of $1,800 to $9,000 to between $35 and $180 per offense.
"It's pretty distressing," says Taipei environmental attorney Robin Winkler.
EPA officials defended the move, saying the heavy fines were "deemed as unreasonable judgment by the public for small-scale restaurants." The agency denies it has any intention of eliminating the regulations altogether. Chen says the high fines discouraged actual enforcement of the law because many police officers would issue simple warnings rather than dole out big fines.
Taiwan's ban on distribution of free plastic containers came after years of haggling among environmentalists, government officials, and industry on how to handle the nation's trash. The country is roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, with 22.5 million inhabitants and a thriving postmanufacturing consumer economy. In other words, lots of garbage in a small space.
Garbage pickers, the very grassroots of recycling and still prevalent in developing countries, disappeared from Taiwan as living standards rose through the 1980s. Huge landfills took over, threatening to swamp the island with trash. Then the country moved to garbage incinerators up until about five years ago, when the toxic byproducts became overwhelming. The EPA then opted to move toward reducing waste at the source, one of which was disposable plastic.
These days in Taipei, shoppers leave the supermarket with armloads of groceries - goods packed in cardboard boxes, and in their own used plastic or cloth shopping bags. New plastic bags cost one New Taiwan dollar (3 cents) a piece.
Consumers say penny pinching and environmental awareness both have pushed them away from buying bags and demanding disposable food containers. Taiwan has a heightened sense of environmental awareness, given its small size. Take-away iced coffee comes in paper cups, not plastic. Fast-food containers are paper only - no plastic cartons or utensils without a fee.
The EPA says its own public-opinion polls show that 80 percent of consumers still support the plastics restrictions, even though a full one-third of residents admit they find the restrictions inconvenient.
Some small shops flout the law and still do provide free bags, and about 20 percent of shoppers still buy one-time use bags. But waste has been scaled far back from before the ban, when it was estimated that Taiwan used 2.5 plastics bags per day per person, adding up to 20 billion bags each year.
Bangladesh, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia have also implemented bans and tariffs on plastic bags, while others are considering such measures. South Korea has an antiplastics policy nearly as aggressive as Taiwan's. And even across the Taiwan Straits in China, where the plastic bag is used to transport everything from potted plants to new puppies, officials in Shanghai have pledged to implement bag restrictions.
Taiwan's plastics industry predicted major economic losses and fought the policy before it went into place. As yet the industry has reported some economic losses, but exports appear to have made up the balance. The Taiwan Plastics Industry Association doesn't have any new figures on job loss related to the regulations.