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.”

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