Road Safety in Taiwan in Need of an Upgrade

On their first full day in Taiwan in September 2013, Jason and Keiko Jenkins and their two children were given a terrifying lesson in local road-use conventions.

Their son, then aged 11, stepped onto a crosswalk in downtown Tainan. A moment later, when the animated green figure that Taiwanese call xiaolüren (小綠人) began moving faster, Keiko urged the boy to speed up. Despite pedestrians having priority, vehicles turning right from Zhongshan Road onto Minzu Road began edging over the crosswalk, a common practice among drivers in Taiwan. Two- and four-wheelers were slowing or stopping as necessary, but the boy’s sudden acceleration resulted in a collision with a motorcycle ridden by a college student.

“My son had the right of way, but he did something unpredictable, causing the accident,” says Jason Jenkins, who grew up in the US state of Georgia.

The youngster suffered a leg injury, but no broken bones. “The guy who hit him couldn’t have been better about it,” recalls Jenkins. “He helped us at the hospital. In a way, I’m glad this happened at the very start of our time in Taiwan. After that, my kids – who were used to Tokyo’s traffic conditions – were extraordinarily cautious.”

Taiwan is not the only country where avoiding mishaps depends more on doing what other road users are likely to expect than on following rules set out by the authorities, says Jenkins, who has also lived in Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Spain, and Mexico.

Tragically, Taiwanese road users do not seem to be getting any better at anticipating one another’s movements. Statistics from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) show that between January and December 2021, 2,990 people died within 30 days of being injured in a road crash – 18 more than in the previous year – even though the number of recorded accidents (356,779) was down by just over 1.5%, and the total number of injuries (more than 450,000) was also lower. 

Compared to the same period in 2020, fatalities in the first 11 months of 2021 among those under the age of 18 rose 9.1%. For those aged 65 or older, road deaths totaled 1,031 (down 6.6%). Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities declined slightly, but those involving electric bicycles jumped 27.3% to 56.

The most recent year in which road fatalities declined was 2017, when 2,697 people lost their lives. Some attribute the uptick in deaths since then to a huge increase in the number of food deliveries made by motorcycle. Indeed, every year many of those killed (including 1,655 between January and November 2021) are on motorcycles.

Counting both deaths and injuries per 100,000 residents, Tainan City, Taoyuan City, and Pingtung County have Taiwan’s most dangerous roads.

In 2000, deaths on highways totaled 3,388, or 15.4 per 100,000 residents. At the start of 2021, deaths per 100,000 had dropped only slightly, to 12.6. Some of Taiwan’s neighbors have made far greater progress. According to the OECD’s International Transport Forum, in 2018 South Korea recorded 7.3 road fatalities per 100,000, down from an atrocious 21.8 in 2000. Between 2000 and 2019, traffic deaths in Japan fell by 62% to just 3.1 per 100,000.

Riding a motorcycle is inherently more dangerous than driving a car – and, per square kilometer, Taiwan has at least 10 times more powered two-wheelers than Japan. But this is not the only reason for Taiwan’s higher death rate. In an Apple Daily article dated December 1, 2018, Taipei-based Japanese journalist Nojima Tsuyoshi described road conditions on the island as reminiscent of 1970s Japan, and “almost like a battlefield.”

Responding by email to Taiwan Business Topics, the MOTC said its efforts to reduce traffic-accident injuries and deaths are unceasing. In recent years, the ministry stated, it has curbed drunk driving, enhanced training and licensing standards for motorcyclists, provided police with new enforcement technologies, and stepped up educational work.

In a May 7, 2021 article on her Facebook page, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmaker Yeh Yu-lan contrasted government spending on policies designed to boost the birth rate with the Ministry of Education having set aside just 0.0025% of its budget for road-safety issues. Arguing that this low figure showed “disregard for the rights of those already born,” she asked, “are people willing to have children in an unsafe environment?”

Since 2006, the Jing Chuan Child Safety Foundation has been working with local schools to teach students correct traffic-safety concepts and improve the local road environment. According to a foundation spokesperson, in addition to improving traffic-safety education, the government should investigate accident hotspots and reconsider its approach to road design. The foundation suggests that Taiwan follow Japan by installing railings on both sides of busy thoroughfares, so people cannot cross wherever they like.

The spokesperson also urges the authorities to enforce speed limits more strictly in urban areas. In Western countries, speeding is cited as a factor in many crashes. However, according to the Statistical Analysis of Road Traffic Accidents data from January to October 2020 posted on the MOTC’s website, excess speed is not among the top five causes of road deaths and injuries in Taiwan.

Many of Taiwan’s road accidents are caused by drivers failing to pay attention rather than speeding. Failing to pay attention and failing to yield were the two most common causes of fatalities. Such behavior was also linked to 155,963 cases of injury. Making left turns “not in accordance with rules” is another major cause of deaths and injuries. Failing to maintain a safe distance is the number-four cause of non-fatal spills but does not kill many people.

Other dangerous behaviors often seen on local roads include running red lights, turning without signaling, driving or riding without lights after dark or during torrential rain, and driving or riding while using a cellphone.

Cheng Tsu-Jui is among those who contend that driving behavior in Taiwan lags behind other countries that have reached a similar level of economic development. Many people in cars assume roads exist for their convenience and that they deserve priority over citizens on two wheels or two feet, he says.

Since taking up an assistant professorship at National Cheng Kung University’s Department of Transportation and Communication Management Science in the summer of 2020, Cheng has tried to make a habit of commuting by bicycle to the campus in central Tainan.

“But I’m finding it a bit tricky and a bit dangerous,” he laments. He says that when he studied in London a decade ago, the environment and infrastructure there for cyclists was much better than it is currently in any part of Taiwan outside Taipei. In London, and later during the two years he worked in Bonn in Germany, he got around by bike, on foot, or by public transportation.

In both the UK and Germany, Cheng explains, the authorities now emphasize a hierarchy of road users that puts pedestrians and users of mobility aids at the very top, followed by cyclists, horse riders, motorcyclists, cars, vans, and – at the bottom – buses and trucks. Taiwan’s government should follow suit, and make clear through education who must yield to whom, he argues.

Taiwan needs an island-wide road safety agency “with real teeth,” he says. The MOTC’s National Road Traffic Safety Commission (NRTSC), established back in 1983, is not structured to properly challenge the authorities’ ideas and assumptions, he explains. Spending by the ministry on road safety, which in 2021 accounted for just 0.4% of the ministry’s total budget, “should be much higher,” he adds.

A body like the NRTSC is unlikely to approve radical action, says Cheng, because it is staffed mainly by civil servants and thus lacks independent assessments and stakeholder engagement. In addition to being cautious by nature, technocrats in the MOTC and local governments’ transportation bureaus got their jobs after passing examinations based on textbooks, which Cheng says must be updated if Taiwan is to build a modern road-safety culture.

The mandatory helmet law that came into force in 1997 helped reduce deaths among motorcyclists. Tightening the DUI (Driving under the Influence) law contributed to a reduction in drunk-driving fatalities, from 909 in 2011 to under 300 in recent years. Taxi drivers now require passengers to buckle up. Yet in other respects, enforcement of traffic rules is sporadic, particularly in rural areas.

Enforcement is so fundamental, Cheng explains, that transportation experts call it one of the “three E’s” or three pillars of road safety, along with education and engineering. He adds two more “E’s” to the list: Engagement (involving as many stakeholders as possible) and empowerment (teaching everyone that they are part of the road-safety equation).

When it comes to getting people to obey the law, Cheng says he is hopeful for two reasons. Cameras tied to License Plate Recognition software make it possible to surveil every stretch of road, reducing the need for “boots on the ground” policing. At the same time, young politicians often pressure the police to more strictly enforce the law, while pushing local governments to improve road design.

However, Cheng says, the authorities should make far greater use of the penalty points system introduced more than 20 years ago. Despite the millions of fines issued for traffic violations every year, relatively few drivers have their licenses suspended, or are ordered to attend road-safety courses.

Evaluation tools developed by iRAP (the International Road Assessment Program, a UK-based NGO) could be very useful for Taiwan. “We’d be able to find out where we are, which is necessary if we’re to progress to where we want to be,” Cheng says. The MOTC, after showing initial enthusiasm for iRAP, did not pursue the initiative. Cheng wonders whether this was because “they realized that Taiwan wouldn’t score well, and politicians in Taiwan may not want to be embarrassed. But it means we’re avoiding the first step.”

Like Cheng, Charles Lin, executive director of the Taiwan Traffic Safety Association, argues that a pedestrians-first policy must be central to any effort to make the roads safer. “This civilized concept will require brave and decisive execution,” he says. Lin’s association was formed in 2017 to represent road users excluded by what he says is the authorities’ focus on cars and trucks.

Lin is pushing for modern, uniform road-design standards, like those set out in the US Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the UK’s Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, and the Netherlands’ CROW design manual for bicycle traffic. He also calls for better training for drivers, motorcyclists, and traffic engineers, and for greater reliance on crash analysis before tightening speed-limit enforcement.

In addition, Lin says the construction of new cycleways is less important than amending the existing policy that consigns powered two-wheelers of up to 250cc in slow lanes together with bicycles. “This creates a bad traffic environment for all kinds of slow-moving vehicles,” he says.

Lin views the current vehicle safety standards for both larger commercial vehicles and passenger cars as insufficient, and singles out Direct Vision Standards (which regulate the visibility and awareness of the driver and other road-users through sensors and cameras, as well as windows and mirrors) for trucks as lacking. His association regularly interacts with the MOTC and local transportation bureaus but has yet to receive a response to its suggestions from the Vehicle Safety Certification Center, a non-profit under the supervision of the MOTC.

Lin says that because various lobbies hold sway among politicians and within the central and local governments, road policy is heavily influenced by economic considerations. Illegal parking is often ignored because stores and restaurants hope customers can park nearby, SUVs and trucks enjoy priority over pedestrians and motorcycles, and speed traps are positioned to maximize revenue, not enhance safety.

This emphasis on what is good for business may well be injurious to the overall economy. A 2010 study by the MOTC’s Institute of Transportation concluded that the previous year’s traffic accidents cost Taiwan NT$431.9 billion (US$15.5 billion), equal to 3.17% of GDP. In 2014, the institute estimated the economic burden had reached NT$475 billion per year.

These tallies do not include what the World Health Organization calls “psychosocial losses.” In a 2016 paper, Huang Lan-ying, an associate professor in National Taipei University’s Graduate School of Criminology, noted that “post-crash occupational disruption” among victims’ families in Taiwan is almost as prevalent as among seriously-injured victims themselves. Traffic collisions “carry a very high socio-economic cost for the society and the families affected, in part because traffic-crash injuries and casualties generally occur in victims’ mid-life years.”

In her conclusion, she called for a redoubling of efforts to reduce collisions, and – in a remark that is as valid now as it was in 2016 – observed that “Taiwan has had appropriate legislation in place for a long time [yet] ongoing enforcement of these laws, even with the addition of closed-circuit TV monitors in key locations, remains far from optimal.”

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Taiwan Business Topics. This version was updated to include road accident statistics for December 2021.

3.5 Articles in Taiwan Business Topics

Three and a half articles. How is that possible?

You’ve perhaps guessed. One of the four features to bear my name in the December and January issues of Taiwan Business Topics was jointly written with Katy Hui-wen Hung, my long-time collaborator on food matters.

For the December issue, which focused on Taiwan’s tourism industry, I wrote about how the growing number of prosperous older travelers (both foreign and domestic) has huge potential to transform the sector, and what the authorities could do to ameliorate the feast-or-famine cycle that afflicts tourist destinations and businesses in Taiwan.

In this month’s magazine, Katy and I describe the history of three traditional sweet desserts in Taiwan: aiyu jelly; mesona jelly; and shaved ice. My solo effort looks into human consumption of insects (such as the dried crickets shown above; photo courtesy of Timothy Seekings), something I’d been investigating for several months with the kind help of researchers and entrepreneurs.

As I type this, I’m putting together two more articles for Taiwan Business Topics… but I won’t say what they’re about until they’ve been published.

Reinventing Kaohsiung

Back in April 2013, Business Traveller Asia-Pacific published my article about the great strides forwards Kaohsiung was making in terms of livability. I won’t post the entire article, just the first few paragraphs; it’s now seriously out of date because the city has continued to make steady progress.

For much of Taiwan’s postwar history, Kaohsiung wasn’t so much lagging behind as written off. Business visitors described the oceanside city as irredeemably polluted, saying it had the sprawl and congestion of Taipei but little of the capital’s cuisine and none of its cultural attractions.

Until the late 1990s they were mostly right. An early sign of the city’s betterment was Love River changing color. Even before Taiwan made the shift from authoritarianism to democracy, public demands that something be done about the smelly, tar-black waterway were too loud to ignore.

Sewage plants are one reason why Love River now has a much healthier hue, but ecological engineering techniques also played a role. So the water’s edge would take on a more natural appearance, the river’s banks were covered with coconut-fiber matting in which aquatic plants could take root, but which will eventually decompose.

The fact that many of the city’s nastiest industries have migrated to the Chinese mainland has helped. Kaohsiung’s sky, like its river, is bluer than it used to be.

In late 2010, Kaohsiung City merged with the surrounding county, increasing the population to 2.8 million. The municipality now encompasses many rural districts, up to and including the south face of Mount Jade, East Asia’s highest mountain. But even before the reorganization, urban Kaohsiung managed to go from way behind Taipei in terms of green space per resident to slightly ahead. It’s little wonder “the general impression of Kaohsiung has taken a 180-degree turn,” to quote a mid-2012 article in CommonWealth, one of Taiwan’s most respected Chinese-language publications…

Living History

Just after Taiwan went into Level-3 epidemic countermeasures on May 19, I emptied out a huge cupboard where I’d been storing old magazines, newspapers, and other work-related materials. Knowing I’d not be able to travel beyond the nearest supermarket for a while, I was determined to declutter at least one corner of the house.

While dividing print publications into three piles (discard, clip, or keep), I came across several articles I’d written but completely forgotten about. I had only the dimmest recollection of this one, for which I interviewed — by email, not in person, I’m pretty sure — the director of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum in the summer of 2010. It appeared in Silkroad, the inflight magazine of Dragon Air, now Cathay Dragon.

Storm Chasers Track Down Taiwan’s Winds

This article first appeared in the October 26, 2007 issue of Taiwan Journal.

As part of its efforts to attract foreign tourists to Taiwan, the Tourism Bureau has been working hard to promote the country’s scenic, cultural and architectural landmarks, such as the Sun Moon Lake, the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.

However, when Stuart Robinson made a brief visit to Taiwan earlier this month, none of these attractions were on his itinerary. Computer engineering is the Briton’s profession, but tornadoes, hurricanes, twisters and typhoons are his passion.

The 40-year-old, who lives in England’s East Midlands, has chased storms in the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He timed his visit to Taiwan — the furthest he has ever traveled to experience extreme weather — to coincide with the arrival of Typhoon Krosa.

Typhoon Krosa, which lashed Taiwan during the weekend of October 6-7, was responsible for at least nine deaths, with winds and torrential rains destroying more than US$117 million worth of crops and agricultural facilities.

“Watching this storm grow from my office back in England, I saw that the forecast tracked Krosa over Taiwan. I knew this storm was chaseable and that I had to be there!” Robinson said in an e-mail interview October 15.

Robinson then contacted Roger Hill, a weather enthusiast from Denver in the US state of Colorado. The two met up at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, where they hired a car. After booking a hotel room equipped with Internet access, which is important for getting the latest weather updates, the duo set about planning their intercept strategy. “The forecast track of the storm was across the northeast tip of the island. Landfall would be late afternoon the next day,” Robinson said.

For the British storm chaser, Taiwan’s seeming lack of preparation as Krosa closed in was astounding. With the typhoon due to slam into the island in less than 24 hours, “people were carrying on with normal life,” he said. “In the Gulf of Mexico, there would be a mass evacuation, and premises would be boarded up to protect them against the wind. Here in Taiwan, there was none of this.”

At dawn the next day, “it was totally overcast with a light rain and gusty winds,” Robinson said. “I knew this was just the beginning of things.” Robinson and Hill rechecked Krosa’s forecast track and then drove to the northeast coast.

When they arrived, the sea was already very turbulent, with six-meter-high waves crashing onto the rocks, sending up huge towers of water. The rain was starting to fall in earnest, with small streams and rivers filling up. Already the winds were up to gale force.

The two men looked for buildings that could protect them and their car when the typhoon hit, but found few suitable structures in the small fishing communities that dot the coast. “Road tunnels would have been our ultimate escape location” if conditions became too dangerous, Robinson said.

Tunnels afford protection, but landslides at both ends may trap people inside. According to a posting on an online forum often used by Robinson and other storm chasers, one foreign typhoon enthusiast got stuck in a tunnel near Hualien for three days during 2005’s Typhoon Haitang.

Robinson had another problem to deal with: The satellite tracking equipment he uses to chase storms in North America does not work in Taiwan. “The footprint for the satellite covers the United States only, so I knew it wouldn’t work in Taiwan. I didn’t have time to see if there was an alternative product available.”

Lacking up-to-the-minute radar and satellite images delivered to their car by high-speed wireless Internet, the two men had to go back to basics. “We decided to track it visually, measuring wind speeds and temperature. It tested Roger’s and my years of storm-chasing skills to the max!”

Early in the afternoon, they felt their first typhoon-strength gust. “This rocked the car and showered us with bits of soil and sand,” Robinson said. “We had parked behind a small concrete building to protect the car. With each gust the wind got stronger. The roads by now were deserted and visibility was reduced to about 300 meters as the air filled with rain that was being blown horizontally. We were totally on our own.”

“However, the storm was not behaving itself,” recalled Robinson. “The winds were not changing direction and the pressure was not falling as quickly as it should have. It dawned on us that we were too far north. The storm had in fact changed direction and instead of heading directly toward us, was heading south of us. We still had time to relocate, and elected to try and push down to find the eye.”

“Driving the car along that coast road at the height of the typhoon were some of the most nerve-racking weather moments I’ve ever had,” Robinson said. “Conditions were dreadful. Even with the wipers on full I could only just keep the windscreen free of rain. The wind would rock the car and forward speed was only about 30 kilometers per hour. After a few kilometers we realized that we weren’t going to be able to make it into the eye. I pulled the car up behind a dirt embankment, and we got ready for what would be a harrowing few hours.”

“At this point we were dejected,” Robinson said. “To come all this way and miss the eye by just a few miles was very hard to take. We were soaked though, cold and hungry. Moreover, we would have to suffer the very worst and most intense winds that surrounded the eye. Getting into the eye would have at least given us a chance to escape the winds.”

Then Krosa surprised the two storm chasers again. “The winds decreased instead of increasing, and we noticed that the pressure was not falling as normal, but was increasing,” Robinson said. “We both thought that we’d missed the eye completely and it was moving away from us over land. We sat there for two hours until it was safe to drive again. It was getting dark so we decided to return to Taipei.”

Arriving in Taipei, the men were surprised to find businesses open. “We got a room and started to look at the storm over the Internet. What we saw shocked us both,” Robinson recalled.

After approaching the spot where the storm chasers had been waiting, Krosa had suddenly turned south and back out to the sea. In the end it did a complete loop over the ocean before making landfall, by which time it was significantly weaker.

“Taiwan dodged a bullet” is how Robinson described this fortuitous turn of events. “At dawn the next day we drove back out to the coast. We were relieved to see that the small fishing communities were largely unscathed. Many trees were down but there wasn’t much evidence of building damage.”

“I feel dejected that I missed the eye,” concluded Robinson. “But that’s the weather!”

Robinson and Hill were not the only foreign storm chasers who rushed to Taiwan to catch Typhoon Krosa. According to Robinson, one came from Australia. Another, a Briton working in China, flew in from Shanghai.

The latter uses the pseudonym “Typhoon Hunter,” and posted several comments and photos on the UK Weatherworld forum. “Taiwanese infrastructure held up brilliantly as usual,” he wrote, noting also that he saw no gas stations closing or running dry, no panic buying and no looting. “This was my fifth typhoon in Taiwan, and this place is definitely my favorite place to intercept.”

The Graveyard

My friend and fellow writer John Grant Ross has called Taiwan “a graveyard of English-language publications.” I’m in my 30th year on this island, and in that time I’ve seen a good few newspapers, magazines and websites rise and fall.

I cut my teeth writing for The China Post, a daily newspaper that launched in Taipei in 1952. It ceased printing in 2017, but continues as an online publication. Taiwan News, where I worked as a copyeditor at the turn of the century, is also web-only (and seems to be far more successful, in terms of attracting readers, than The China Post).

Fountain, a biannual magazine put out by a government-backed cultural foundation, was a beautiful thing to hold and behold. For its fifth issue, I wrote big chunks of a special report looking forward to the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung. (This led to me writing about the event for other publications). A highlight of the assignment was getting to meet and interview Chi Cheng, a legendary track athlete and, in person, a gregarious and down-to-earth individual.

It’s sad but unsurprising that English-language publications struggle in Taiwan. In Hong Kong and Singapore, where far more people are likely to read something in English, the situation is hardly better…

Back to Black

The challenge came over a mug of coffee. If I was serious about reducing my environmental impact, a friend teased, I should be putting soy milk, not cow’s milk, in my drink.

Back in February 2016, EcoWatch.com told its readers that cow’s milk represents “60 to 70 percent of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee with a few tablespoons of milk.” For a latte, the article said, “it’s more like 80 or 90 percent.”

My response to my friend ran to two words: “Food miles.” Most of the soy consumed in Taiwan is grown on the other side of the Pacific, I pointed out, whereas almost all of the cow’s milk sold in fluid form in Taiwan’s supermarkets comes from local dairy herds.

“But what do those cows eat, and where does it come from?” he asked.

We both knew the answer. Dairy cows don’t, as some people imagine, subsist on grass. Instead, the 20 to 25kg of food each animal consumes per day comprises roughly equal quantities of forage (grass, hay and silage) and grains (usually corn and soy). Food-processing by-products like cottonseeds, citrus pulp, almond hulls and soy hulls are often added, as are spent grains from breweries.

Just how much of the diet of Taiwanese cattle is imported may surprise you…

To read my April 21, 2021 Environmental Impact Assessment column in full, go here.

The Canals of Mars? Troy Parfitt and Jordan Peterson

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was erroneously believed that there were “canals” on the planet Mars. These were a network of long straight lines… observed by astronomers using early low-resolution telescopes without photography… Around the turn of the century there was even speculation that they were engineering works, irrigation canals constructed by a civilization of intelligent aliens indigenous to Mars.

I’ve known Troy Parfitt for several years. I edited two of his books, and I’ve read the others. Our tastes in literature and music are similar. We’ve only met in person a handful of times, but I consider him a friend. 

Nearly two years ago, Troy began telling me about disturbing similarities between the words of Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian superstar-professor/bestselling author, and those of Adolf Hitler. In a series of emails, and later in Facebook posts, he shared examples of what he described as Peterson’s plagiarism of the Nazi leader’s writings. 

I could see that the language was somewhat similar, but I wasn’t convinced that Peterson lifted so many phrases and ideas from Hitler. I wondered if the wordings Troy highlighted weren’t somewhat common constructions — like “a topsy-turvy world” or “something for everyone” — and I told him so. But what to one person is nothing more than blurry lines on the surface of a dead planet is to another proof of the Martians’ engineering genius.

Back in September 2019, I spent most of one day with Troy. We discussed Peterson and some other topics. He was (and remains, if our regular correspondence is anything to go by) reasonable and reasoning. His eyes did not swivel. I saw no foam on his lips. 

While we were driving through rural Taiwan, roughly equidistant between where he lives and where I’m based, he asked me to take a look at the foreword of his just-published book about Peterson, The Devil and His Due. It was the part that was giving him the most trouble, and he realized if it wasn’t any good, a lot of readers wouldn’t get into the chapters where he compares Peterson’s lectures and writing with those of Hitler, Jung, and others. 

He didn’t say so, but I think he approached me because he knew I’m skeptical about his thesis. Also, I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read the main body of the book, so there was no risk I’d unconsciously depend on something that appears later in the book in order to get his drift. He asked for no-holds-barred feedback. I gave it, inasmuch as it was necessary, and wished him the best of luck. 

Taiwan Startups Develop Plastics-Free Products

This is a longer version of my article in the November 2020 issue of Taiwan Business Topics:

“In Taiwan, we use something like 16 billion plastic bags every year, and fewer than 10 percent of them are recycled,” says Jason Huang (黃之揚), co-founder of Re-Think, a not-for-profit organization that aims to protect Taiwan’s coastal and marine environments.

This dismal recycling rate is not entirely the fault of consumers, Huang points out. In the case of bags, the quantity of retrievable plastic is often so small that those who collect or process recyclables for a living do not accept them.

Advice posted on the website of Taipei City Government’s Environmental Protection Bureau in May 2018 reminds householders that only clean, single-material bags can be recycled. Bags contaminated by oil or solids should be thrown out with general waste; plastic packaging for snacks is often laminated with aluminum foil and so cannot be reclaimed, the website explains.

As part of its plan to get rid of all single-use plastic bags, straws, and beverage cups by 2030, Taiwan’s government has already banned supermarkets and convenience stores from giving out free plastic bags. Despite that restriction, each day millions of bags are used just once, to hold a bento box or some soup. Few individuals bring their own containers when buying cooked food. Others say they would, but tiffin carriers and Tupperware-type boxes are neither light nor compact.

“People understand that reducing plastics consumption is an important goal, but this is ‘a society of convenience,’” says Huang.

Lynn Kao (高海琪) and Will Chien (簡仲威), co-founders of Agooday, hold a similar view. But rather than organize educational and community activities like beach cleanups, they are trying to change people’s behavior by offering a novel product.

The duo launched the Pockeat reusable food-bag (pictured above) after a wildly successful 2017 crowdfunding effort. Seeking NT$1 million via zeczec.com, they raised NT$24.04 million. So far, they have sold more than 90,000 of the bags.

The two-liter Pockeat, which retails for NT$640, weighs 40 grams. The three-liter version (price NT$690) weighs 47 grams. Both can be folded flat to fit inside a pocket or a handbag.

The bag’s lining is waterproof, oil resistant, and heatproof up to 120 degrees Celsius. This inner bag is made from food-grade TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). In Taiwan, Kao says, unused TPU can be recyclable, but after exposure to oil or food, it cannot be recycled.

Asked why Agooday does not use recycled PET bottle fabric for the Pockeat’s inner bag, Kao explains that current regulations do not allow recycled material to be used in the manufacturing of food containers.

By adjusting a velcro strip, the user can shrink the capacity so small portions do not bounce around. The bag’s handle is designed for easy carrying or hanging on bicycle handlebars.

“Compared to free plastic bags, people think the Pockeat is quite expensive, so we try to educate them about both the environmental cost of single-use bags and the health issues. For instance, it’s not safe to use disposable bags for hot soup,” says Kao.

The company commissioned SGS to test the Pockeat and certify it as safe for storing hot and cold foods. To help the public get to know the Pockeat, Agooday has published videos showing how the bags should be used, cleaned, and dried.

Asked about the product’s overall carbon footprint, Kao replies: “We don’t know, and it would cost a lot to get a recognized team to calculate it. The key point of our products is to replace disposable plastic and reduce the amount of garbage in the ocean, so it’s important to use them as many times as possible.”

Kao claims the Pockeat, “can be used for forever,” and Agooday offers a repair service to extend the product’s life. There is a small charge to cover material, labor and shipping. In an average month, the company does three or four repair jobs.

In addition to asking the public to do right by the environment, Agooday tries to attract customers with Taiwan-centric designs (Mount Jade features on one edition) and by collaborating with digital-sticker entrepreneur Kanahei and the creators of Bac Bac and Taiwan Bar.

One reason why the Pockeat is not cheap is that Kao and Chien decided early on to source all materials and have all manufacturing done in Taiwan. “If we moved our production to China, we’d cut our costs in half, but we want the Pockeat to be made here, to reduce the carbon footprint from factory to consumer, and to better control the quality” says Kao.

Finding a willing and capable manufacturer was far from easy, she explains. Most factory owners are used to working with big buyers, so it took some time to convince them to work with Agooday.

“We also faced some quality issues. The inner bags are manufactured by high frequency welding, and the factory didn’t QC every piece. We found some with defects, so we had to change manufacturer and delay deliveries. It’s very important to us that we have good quality products for our customers.”

The Pockeat was not Agooday’s first product. In 2014, Kao and Chien devised a biodegradable alternative to the plastic toothbrush.

According to the company’s website, 100 million toothbrushes are thrown away in Taiwan each year, polluting ecosystems and eventually degrading into microplastics which enter the food chain. To trim this tide of waste, Agooday sells a toothbrush with a bamboo handle (coated with beeswax and flaxseed oil to prevent mold) and nylon bristles.

Agooday toothbrushes — like their plastic counterparts — have to be replaced every few months. Kao advises customers to dispose of them by plucking off and throwing the bristles in a trash can, then burying the handle in soil it can decompose. The nylon is not biodegradable, but unlike conventional petroleum-based nylon, it is made from castor oil, which is a renewable resource.

For a period, the company was selling a 100-percent biodegradable (but vegan-unfriendly) toothbrush with hog’s hair bristles instead of nylon bristles. “Due to quality control issues, we discontinued that version,” Kao says.

The toothbrushes are made in China. “We’d like to keep our dental-products manufacturing in Taiwan, but honestly it’s very hard to find suitable factories in Taiwan, as most of them have moved to China or Southeast Asia,” laments Kao.

Agooday’s plastic-free dental floss is made of silk. It is sold in a reusable bottle, while refills are packed in paper. “For vegans, we’ve tried to get cruelty-free silk, but as the quantity we need isn’t great, it’s hard to obtain,” says Kao.

Like the founders of Agooday, James Chuang (莊麒勳) has examined Taiwanese lifestyles, and seen ways to scale down plastics consumption.

“I started Helashuo Co., Ltd. in 2017 because I wanted to reduce plastic use through innovative products. Here in Taiwan, many people ride scooters, and raincoats are in great demand, but they’re made from petrochemicals. That why we started with raincoats,” he says.

Both Agooday and Helashuo have benefitted from government help. The former received advice and financial support through the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Service Industry Innovation Research and Development Program (SIIR), while the latter qualified for a Taipei City Startup subsidy of NT$700,000 in 2018.

Helashuo’s products are sold under the LIve For Eco brand name through several websites, including its own.

The outer layer of Helashuo’s raincoat, which accounts for more than 70 percent of its total weight, is pure cotton — “a natural material that naturally decomposes,” Chuang stresses. Cotton is a hydrophilic fabric, meaning it absorbs water, and Chuang admits the raincoat may get slightly heavier when it gets wet.

The waterproof inner layer is made of polyurethane (PU), which he describes as an “eco-friendly plastic.” Proponents of PU argue that it is preferable to most other plastics. It does not contain chemicals that interfere with the endocrine and hormone systems of humans and other creatures, nor does it influence PH levels in soil or water. There are also various ways in which PU items can be recycled back into its prepolymer constituents.

Biobased and biodegradable types of PU are available, but Helashuo uses petrobased PU. “Nobody wants to recycle and reuse this material, so our job is to reduce environmental impact by using cotton to cut petrochemicals consumption,” Chuang says.

Helashuo is currently perfecting flip-flops made of cotton, cork, and natural raw rubber. “These natural materials aren’t water-resistant, but they’re suitable for use indoors, or outside in dry weather. Most important, they can all decompose naturally,” says Chuang. “We’re still doing market testing, and we’ll adjust this product. We hope our new flip-flop can go on sale in 2021.”

Earlier this year, when Helashuo launched a range of child-sized raincoats. Chuang used zeczec.com to attract money and publicity. He admits that he purposely set a low target of NT$100,000 to ensure it would be met early on in the 60-day fundraising period. The campaign concluded on September 23 with pledges totalling just over NT$1.6 million. “Including marketing costs, we’ll need much more money to run this project. The money [raised through zeczec.com] will go toward manufacturing the first batch,” he says.

All LIve For Eco products are made in Taiwan, and pricing is a major challenge, Chuang admits. He explains: “Natural materials are more expensive than petrochemicals, and manufacturing in Taiwan is more expensive than in China or Vietnam.”

A LIve For Eco raincoat last just as long as ones made of conventional materials, says Chuang. They are, however, significantly more expensive. LIve For Eco’s prices may be more acceptable to consumers in countries where the standard is living is higher, Chuang says. For this reason, he expects to focus on developing overseas markets and children products. “We’re very interested in partnering with big companies, and we have the ability to customize our products, or even develop new ones, for them,” he adds.

Unlike the entrepreneurs behind Agooday and Helashuo, the founders of Uanuan (源源鋼藝) can draw on decades of industrial experience. The brand’s name derives from the first part of the names of two factories established in the 1960s by James Wang’s (王冠翔) grandfather. Wang is Uanuan’s creative director; his father is in charge of production.

Uanuan’s first product — a set of salt and pepper shakers called One Shake — was not specifically designed to replace single-use plastics. It did, however, win both a Red Dot Design Award and Golden Pin Design Award.

Its best-selling item, however, is explicitly pitched as a solution to one of the Taiwanese public’s most polluting habits. The description of the Hiding Tumbler (pictured below) on Uanuan’s website highlights a statistic as shocking as Jason Huang’s plastic-bag tally: Roadside kiosks sell an estimated 1.5 billion cups of tea and other beverages per year. Because only a small minority of customers bring their own containers, it is likely that the thirst for freshly-squeezed juices and pearl milk tea generates four million pieces of trash per day.

According to James Wang, one unique selling point of the Hiding Tumbler is that users can switch between a thick straw and a thin straw; made of Eastman Tritan copolyester, these are supplied with the tumbler. Between sips, the 750ml cup can be sealed with a click, the straw on the inside, away from gritty city air.

The cup is double-layer stainless steel, in which iced drinks stay cold for up to 12 hours. On the hottest days of summer, the website assets, there is no need to add so many ice cubes the drink’s taste ends up diluted. When carrying cold liquid on a sweltering day, no condensation forms on the exterior. Hot beverages keep their warmth for up to 8 hours.

“We do all our own manufacturing, but despite over fifty years’ experience, we still faced many ordeals during the manufacturing process. Improving and sustaining the quality of our products has been the most important thing,” says Wang.

Uanuan’s website claims that, if you use a Hiding Tumbler three or more times a week, in around half a year, the environmental cost of manufacturing it will be canceled out by the quantity of plastic you will have avoided using. The tumbler comes with a carrying bag made of recycled PET bottle fiber.

Many people complain about having to discard an appliance or a utensil that is otherwise in perfect condition, simply because one part of it is broken. To avoid this situation, Uanuan offers replacement straws, lids, and other components through its website.

The website also sells spares for Uanuan’s Bendong compartmentalized meal-boxes. Like the Hiding Tumbler, the boxes are made of stainless steel. If users want their food to stay hot even longer, they can order a silicone inner insulation layer.

About 75 percent of Uanuan’s sales are through online stores. The brand is now sold in Hong Kong, Macao, and South Korea, and is in the process of entering the Japanese market. Yet Wang says: “We’re not in a hurry to expand very fast into international markets. We hope first we can be on a firm footing in Taiwan, and more Taiwanese can know us, love what we do and what we make, and share our beliefs,” he says.

“If we don’t cut down our plastics consumption or increase our recycling, the landfills where incinerator ash is dumped will soon fill up,” says Re-Think’s Huang. Finding new landfill sites is exceptionally difficult, he adds, because as soon as a location is proposed, those living nearby protest.

In Huang’s opinion, more people now understand the importance of curtailing the use of plastic, but “behavior hasn’t changed much, and total plastics production isn’t falling.” The popularity of online shopping and food-delivery apps have pushed up the amount of plastic discarded by households, he says.

The Environmental Protection Administration is working with vendors and trying to figure how to reduce single-use packaging, yet Huang complains that government policies are sometimes watered down when they run into opposition. Asked if the 2030 target can be met, he says: “I’m not sure how it’ll go.”

Environmental Impact Assessment

…is the name of my bimonthly sustainability/ecology column for Taipei Times, which formally debuted in today’s newspaper.

The column soft-launched on September 23 with an article about Buy Directly From Farmers, a social enterprise that helps consumers order organic/pesticide-free produce from Taiwanese agriculturalists. Two weeks after that, I profiled Taiwanese-German zero-waste advocate Shia Su. For the October 28 issue, I looked at the state of local avifauna with the help of the Taiwan Wild Bird Federation.

The first piece to appear under the Environmental Impact Assessment banner focused on the ragged yet crucial woodlands that struggle to survive a stone’s throw from the ocean. Two entities are working hard to protect and extend these windbreak forests: The Buddhist-oriented Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation (which provided the photo here) and the central government’s Forestry Bureau (in particular, the bureau’s Taiwan Forestry Research Institute).