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Taiwan Eco-ban Targets 1.5 Billion Cut in Per Annum Plastic Bag Usage

With its 15-year-old ban on free plastic bags set to be extended to a wider range of retail sectors as of January next year, Taiwan is looking to confirm its on-going reputation for environmental responsibility and eco-friendly legislation.

Photo: Plastic carrier bags: A consumer convenience that imperils ocean habitats. (Shutterstock.com)
Plastic carrier bags: A consumer convenience that imperils ocean habitats.
Photo: Plastic carrier bags: A consumer convenience that imperils ocean habitats. (Shutterstock.com)
Plastic carrier bags: A consumer convenience that imperils ocean habitats.

With the aim of reducing the number of plastic shopping bags used every year by 1.5 billion, Taiwan has announced plans to extend its ban on the free distribution of such items to seven additional retail sectors. The territory initially restricted the free supply of plastic carrier bags in seven retail sectors back in 2002, with the move said to have drastically reduced the use of these notoriously unrecyclable and environmentally unfriendly items.

The extension of the ban, scheduled to be implemented as of 1 January 2018, will see several high street retail sectors – including bakeries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and beverage outlets – having to contend with being unable to provide free carrier bags to their customers for the first time. It is thought that the extended ban will take the affected number of businesses from its current level of 20,000 to 100,000.

Plastics have long been the bête noire of the environmental brigade. While their lightness, durability and low cost has inevitably appealed to a wide range of manufacturers, the sheer number of non-biodegradable, unrecyclable plastic products – including a huge volume of used carrier bags – has come to represent a major threat to the terrestrial and marine ecospheres.

Taiwan was among the first to respond to this threat, with its 2002 plastic ban pre-empting many similar restrictions later introduced in several western countries. Today, more than 40 countries have total or partial bans on the free distribution of plastic bags. Some cities – notably Australia's Coles Bay, and San Francisco on the West Coast of the US – have gone even further, introducing a blanket ban on the use or distribution of such items.

In Europe, the UK was among the first countries to restrict the use of plastic bags, with their free distribution banned in London since 2007. Across the English Channel, France made a similar move, ordering supermarkets to refrain from supplying ultra-thin plastic carrier bags from July this year.

Across Asia, a number of similar initiatives have been adopted. In China, for instance, it has been an offence since 2008 for department stores, supermarkets and markets to supply free carrier bags. The following year, Hong Kong imposed a compulsory 50 cent per bag levy on the provision of such items.

In terms of Taiwan's own legislation in the sector, under the terms of the 2002 ban introduced by the territory's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), the public sector (government departments, public schools and public hospitals), department stores, shopping malls, warehouse stores, supermarkets, chain-operated convenience stores and fast-food chains were all prohibited from offering free plastic shopping bags with a thickness of less than 0.06mm, while a compulsory levy was introduced on the distribution of bags with a thickness of 0.06mm or more. The legislation – The Waste Disposal Act – also specified that all transgressors would face a fine of NT$1,200-6,000 (US$40-200).

Following the initial legislation, a public-relations initiative was launched to persuade Taiwanese consumers to take their own bags when out shopping. At the time, the combined impact of the new regulations and the educational campaign was said to have cut the use of plastic bags from 3.435 billion per annum to 1.43 billion.

In the years since the initial legislation was introduced, however, there have been concerns that the move wasn't drastic enough to make a lasting impact. In particular, it was felt that the distribution of all such bags should be entirely curtailed, rather than just restricted, while the remit of the regulations should be comprehensively extended to cover the full range of retail outlets. There was also criticism of the requirement that all plastic bags distributed by retailers should have a minimum thickness of 0.06mm. While this was seen as reducing the overall quantity of bags in circulation, it also, arguably, led to an increase in the total volume of plastic utilised.

It was many of these perceived shortcomings that this new round of legislation was designed to address. According to Chang Tzi-chin, the EPA's Deputy Minister, however, the territory's revised regulations have also come in response to moves by the United Nations (UN) to prioritise protecting the marine environment this year, particularly with regard to countering plastics-related pollution.

Photo: Beverage ban: Drinks retailers are to fall within the remit of Taiwan’s extended plastic bag legislation. (Shutterstock.com)
Beverage ban: Drinks retailers are to fall within the remit of Taiwan's extended plastic bag legislation.
Photo: Beverage ban: Drinks retailers are to fall within the remit of Taiwan’s extended plastic bag legislation. (Shutterstock.com)
Beverage ban: Drinks retailers are to fall within the remit of Taiwan's extended plastic bag legislation.

In line with this, in March this year, the UN General Assembly highlighted the fact that, on average, a refuse truck's worth of plastic waste is dumped into the sea every minute. Should this continue, delegates were informed, there would be more plastic contaminants than fish in the world's oceans by 2050.

Against such a backdrop, the EPA's move to extend its plastics ban has been widely welcomed. From 1 January next year, 80,000 outlets in the cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, medical device, home appliances, photographic supplies and information/communications sector will fall within its remit, as will bookshops, stationery retailers, laundries, bakeries and beverage outlets.

As well as extending the original scope of the legislation, the updated regulations also dispense with the thickness requirement. Although stores will now be entitled to use thinner bags, no bags –regardless of thickness or variety of plastic – may be given out to shoppers free of charge.

In terms of the likely impact of this new legislation, the EPA estimates that Taiwan's current annual usage of 20 billion plastic bags a year will be cut by 1.5 billion. This is in line with the 58% per store reduction that followed the implementation of the 2002 legislation. In order to further boost the effectiveness of the new regulations, the EPA will be working with government bodies in Taipei and New Taipei to re-purpose used carrier bags in the garbage-collection sector.

Coinciding with the 1 January 2018 extension of the plastic bag ban, Taiwan will also enact legislation designed to prohibit the manufacture or import of all cosmetics and personal-care products containing plastic microbeads, including shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, shower gels and facial cleansers. According to the EPA, the environmental threat represented by these microbeads, which are resistant to sewage treatment filtration and known to compromise ecosystems, has necessitated immediate action.

Robert Kang, Special Correspondent, Taipei

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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