The reality of Taiwan’s tropical island idyll is that it’s drowning in plastic. Nowhere is this more evident than the nation’s beaches, which instead of being an attraction for your average sea ‘n’ sand loving tourist are inundated with plastic debris, swimming in petrochemical products, and overflowing with PVCs.

Beach bums, surfer dudes and weekend divers will all tell you the same, Taiwan’s beaches and coastal areas are a mess. For the volunteers who return each month to clean the beaches, it’s a bit like King Canute trying to stop the tide, however much they clean it up more trash keeps washing ashore.

Certainly, this is the experience of Duke Abrahamsen, founder and CEO of The Key fitness Center, in Taipei. Since June, his volunteer crew has been cleaning Jinshan beach, a 45-minute drive from central Taipei, as part of a community program that also helps feed the homeless and provides gifts for orphans at Christmas.

Credit: Jack Gallant

Volunteers do their best to clear the trash from Jinshan beach in New Taipei.

“It’s mostly plastic and fishing industry pollution,” Abrahamsen says. “Our beach has a jetty to the right and a river emptying into the sea, so it’s a natural collection spot for rubbish. It’s constantly dirty, even though we return each time to clean it.”

For 12 years, Society of Wilderness (SOW) has headed up a group of environmental organizations to gather data on the type of trash piling onto Taiwan’s coastline. After 541 beach cleanups, a total of 904,302 items were collected, weighing 131,358 kg. Approximately, 91 percent of the trash was plastic or mixed plastic, while the most frequently found items were shopping bags, bottle caps, tableware, fishing equipment and drinking straws.

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Credit: Jack Gallant

A typical day’s haul from the cleanup of Jinshan beach.

This information was collated in a paper published in August this year called, unsurprisingly, “Type and Quantity of Coastal Debris Pollution in Taiwan: A 12-Year Nationwide Assessment Using Citizen Science Data.” The report’s authors were SOW’s Hu Chieh-shen (胡介申), National Taiwan University’s Alexander Kunz, and Bruno Walther of National Sun Yat-Sen University in Kaohsiung. They calculated that, at any one time, up to 7.9 million items of debris, weighing 1.1 million kg, is washed up on Taiwan’s shores (though this is highly variable).

The most frequently found items were shopping bags, bottle caps, tableware, fishing equipment and drinking straws.

While the authors point out at the beginning of their paper this a global problem, they add that macroplastic pollution has “reached pervasive and catastrophic proportions along Taiwan’s coastline.” They also point out that as macroplastics break down into meso-, micro- or nanoplastics, they contaminate our food and water supplies.

Read More: Nano This Plastic Should Be in Our Water

This description of environmental collapse, or death by plastic, shouldn’t really come as a surprise considering Taiwan’s apex position in the chain of supply. It’s not only one of the world’s biggest producers of plastic, it is also a major manufacturer of plastic goods. In shops and at night markets, every sale adds a bag that ends up on the streets, in the sea, or in landfills at best.

Taiwan’s post-war economic miracle was based on plastics, so much so that it was known as the “Petrochemical Kingdom” (石化王國). This might seem odd, considering it most definitely is not an oil producing country, but it was a convenient way to fund and kickstart industrial advancement.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG

Read More: Plastic Fantastic: A Potted History of Taiwan’s Plastics Industry

Even today petrochemicals comprise about 30 percent of domestic manufacturing, while the Industrial Technology Research Institute of Taiwan calculates that petrochemical revenues for 2016 were US$60 billion.

This reliance on petrochemicals has only belatedly been addressed, with the eventual cancellation of the Kuokuang petrochemical complex project in 2011 and closure of Kaohsiung’s Fifth Naphtha cracker in 2016.

Asked to assess plastic pollution is in the region, report author Bruno Walther comments, “China and Indonesia are two of the biggest plastic polluting countries, so Southeast Asia has a big job to do. You could say Taiwan is not exceptional and is pretty bad, but at least there is a willingness to change and the public is aware of the problem. Also, there has been some diligent work by NGOs.”

Listen: PODCAST: Is Taiwan Adrift in a Sea of Trash?

He adds the issue of plastics in the food we eat and water we drink has “really hit home with people” and increased awareness. Basically put, they now realize the plastic in oceans is not just killing marine creatures and birds, it’s affecting our health too.

As for what can be done, Walther says education is important, “But this is very difficult because you can’t educate everyone, especially when it seems to be all about convenience.”

Walther notes that Taiwan has a high recycling rate and this is admirable, “On the other hand, there is so much stuff being produced it inevitably turns up in the environment. After all, if there’s 10 million tons of trash and you recycle 9 million tons, that’s still 1 million tons. Even a good recycling rate means a huge amount of trash in the environment.”

“It would be better to reduce the amount of stuff in general, or reuse, like glass bottles being resold, or bringing your own glass containers, filling them up and taking them home. It might not be feasible for everything, but it should be the default.”

Like other writers on the subject, such as George Monbiot and his article, “The Earth is in a Death Spiral,” Walther believes radical action needs to be taken and that environmentalism is a political rather than a technical or economic problem.

“We have had many of the technical solutions for a decade or so, yes, we need electric and hydrogen cars. If there was more support from politicians then we would be further down the road of sustainability. The vested interests of the oil and political industry prevent this from happening.”

Nevertheless, he does believe the issue is gaining some traction and the Taiwan government is starting to follow best practice legislation, such as banning single use plastics like bags, straws, disposable cutlery and beverage cups by 2030.

As for weekend beach cleanups, Walther is naturally supportive. “Once the stuff is in the environment this is one of the best ways of dealing with it.”

But he also cautions that, “Sisyphean efforts can never hold off the garbage tsunami. We have to tackle this problem at source, as industry is all about increasing production. What’s needed is concerted government support in concert with civil society” – meaning better regulation.

Read Next: Taiwan’s Circular Economy: A Model for Global Sustainability?

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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