Taiwan's government is making a strong push to try to change consumers' use of disposable plastic products, rolling out a wide-ranging ban on single-use plastics such as straws, bags, cups and utensils.
The ban by Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration, which was announced Feb. 13, will be rolled out in three stages starting next year, but it will be a slow-moving policy, with changes not implemented fully until 2030.
If completely enacted, it would be one of the world's toughest policies aimed at single-use plastics.
Environmental groups praised it, while plastics industry reaction ranged from resignation to concern that biodegradable plastics were being ignored.
Plastic straws will be first. Starting next year, food and beverage stores will not be able to provide them for in-store use, and in 2020, they'll be banned from providing free straws. By 2025, fines will be levied for carryout use, and by 2030, they would be completely banned.
Plastic bags, beverage cups and utensils will be subject to similar rollout bans over the next 12 years, with full bans slated for 2030.
Taiwan's EPA said in a statement that it's been working on plastics waste issues since 2002, when it asked supermarkets to start charging for bags. It said it's concerned about plastic pollution in oceans and rivers.
"The EPA and grassroots environmental protection groups sought broad dialogue and consensus from people from all walks of life, including the general public, plastic manufacturers and businesses with the aim of achieving a goal of 'reduce plastic, limit plastic, zero plastic,'" the EPA said.
"The driving force behind the plastic control policy comes from both the government and the nongovernmental sector and at the same time has the public's support," the agency said.
EPA said it's moving slowly to allow industry and the public to adjust.
"We expect the 2030 timeline and implementation method to enable the manufacturing industry, the traders and the general public to respond as early as possible," it said. "The industry can develop new alternative material technologies or new consumption patterns [such as shared use], and the public can change their throwaway habits, maintain the environment and reduce resource waste."
Greenpeace, which worked with EPA and local environmental groups on the policy as part of a five-year marine debris management action plan, said the four products were chosen based on what's turning up in local beach cleanups.
Yen Ning, an oceans campaigner in Greenpeace East Asia's Taiwan office, said she believed the new policy is welcomed by the public.
"I think more and more Taiwanese people realized that marine pollution is nearby," she said. "[The legislation makes] people feel that the government is willing to do something on this problem. Of course, there will always be backlash on this."
Yen said that while she and other campaigners wanted faster implementation, she understood EPA's slower pace.
She cited Taiwan's microbead ban as an example of a successful slow rollout. Taiwan's full ban on microbeads will go into effect this July. She added that the current levy on plastic bags is also having some impact on reducing use.
She said she's not worried about the public's ability to adapt.
"They have the concept to reduce the usage," she said. "It will create some inconvenience, but it is acceptable for people to take on the challenge."
Plastics processors, on the other hand, had mixed reactions, ranging from seeing it as a need to improve to struggling to prepare for the ban.
Taiwan, with a population roughly the same as Texas, has a large plastics industry. It's plastics and rubber machinery sector, for example, is the sixth-largest exporter of such equipment in the world.
An official with the Taiwan Plastics Industry Association seemed resigned to the regulation.
"A crisis is also an opportunity," said Deputy Secretary Chen Xu. "We can refocus and make new products — for example, fruit and vegetable plastic protective wrapping and electronics protective film.
"Just like other environmental regulations, we just have to find a way to go along with it," Chen said. "We need to improve our conditions and improve the quality of our technology to produce more sustainable products. At the beginning, there will be some adjustment, but slowly we will make changes."
Taiwan's biopolymers industry reacted with more concern.
Esmy Huang, chief operating officer at biodegradable plastics producer Minima Technology Co. Ltd. in the city of Taichung, said the regulations were putting Taiwan's plastics industry into a frenzy.
He said that in recent months, he's received lots of requests from other plastics processors for information about his products. Minima said its biodegradable polymers are designed for single-use products like bags, utensils and straws, and and they are compostable.
Huang says if incinerated, the compostable plastics release less carbon dioxide emissions than traditional plastics. The company works with big brands like Starbucks and 7-Eleven in Taiwan and around the world.
Minima CEO Huang Qianming, who is also head of Taiwan's Environmentally Biodegradable Polymer Association, expressed frustration at the EPA.
"The EPA's job is to educate consumers, not to discipline them. This regulation is all about discipline, and it affects the rights of consumers," he said.
"The government is not distinguishing between traditional and compostable plastics. There are alternative solutions to one-use plastics. Compostable plastics made from PLA, PPS, PPSA, PPAG and PHA should be considered."
According to Minima's Huang, a previous levy on traditional plastic bags had allowed compostable plastic bags to be given for free at convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
Such outlets are big business in Taiwan, which has an estimated 5,200 7-Eleven stores and, by some estimates, the highest density of convenience stores in the world, compared to its population of 23.5 million.
He said the new regulation will affect giveaways of those compostable bags.
"We met with several people at the EPA to persuade them that the certified 100 percent compostable bags are not conventional plastic," Huang Qianming said. "We've talked with them several times, but they won't change the rules. It's not about environmental protection; it's about bureaucracy."
He's not giving up.
"Luckily, Taiwan has this technology for a compostable solution," he said. "It's a shame the government doesn't want us to use it. We will continue to talk with the government."
But Greenpeace's Yen says that the compostable plastics still cause problems.
"We don't have compost areas [in Taiwan] so actually those biodegradable plastics go to incinerators," she said. "If we want to promote biodegradable plastic, we need compost areas to deal with this. The biodegradable plastic can only biodegrade in certain situations."
"There are certain environmental criteria," she said. "If abandoned at the seaside, they are not able to biodegrade, so there is no difference with traditional plastics."
The EPA said biodegradable plastics can still be used in other products and said it recognized that plastics have an extensive range of uses.
But it said it wanted to focus this policy on cutting back on "one-time non-essential plastic products."
Local media, for example, quoted EPA as saying it wanted to reduce plastic bag use from 700 bags per person per year now to 100 by 2025 and zero by 2030.
"In the future, the industry may develop new alternative material technologies to create environmentally friendly products," the EPA said.