Goodbye to the Era of Plastic Tableware—Plastic Reduction from Farm to Dining Table
Lynn Su /photo byLin Min-hsuan /tr. byPhil Newell
I always assumed that pictures posted on social media of plastic garbage floating in the ocean represented rare cases. It was only when I personally went to the seacoast that I saw the plastic bottles and plastic bags spread everywhere, in quantities that grew more shocking with each visit.
It is only then that one wakes up to the fact that plastic pollution is such a serious issue in our lives.
In Hualien, where the morning sun first strikes Taiwan, there is no industrial pollution. This is why the government chose the county as the first place to promote toxin-free agriculture. The area of land with organic certification is the greatest anywhere on the island.
Packaging materials used in traditional agricultural society are making a comeback as a way to reduce plastic waste. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Farmers’ markets put into practice sustainability from production to sales.
An earthly paradise
At the height of summer, with daytime temperatures soaring to 40℃, at seven or eight in the morning the day is just starting for office workers in the city. However, farmers who labor on the land have already completed a full cycle of arduous work.
“In this season, you can’t really stay in the fields past 10 a.m.,” says Eric Huang as he warmly welcomes us to his Jolly Buddha Organic Orchard in Hualien’s Ruisui Township. Huang, who previously worked in a high-end boutique, resigned from his job six years ago and said goodbye to bustling Taipei, returning to his family home to practice agriculture together with his parents.
They have less than a hectare of land, and are surrounded by big farms on all sides. But what’s special about them is that while others are only now beginning to transition to organic farming, as early as 2010 Huang’s father, Huang Yongjian, was already leading the way as the operator of Hualien’s first toxin-free demonstration farm, with guidance from the county government.
As we walk into the mixed farm and woodland, besides the large trees such as camphor and maple visible here and there, there are also fruit trees with guava, Valencia oranges, papaya, peaches, and dragonfruit. In addition, scattered everywhere are patches of vegetables like Chinese violets (Asystasia gangetica), perilla (Perilla frutescens), chayote stems (Sechium edule), taro (Colocasia esculenta), and bird’s-nest fern (Asplenium nidus). The cultivated area for any given item is small, and the whole farm appears varied and diverse, with remarkable vitality.
At this time, the two elders of the family are sitting outside the farmhouse under the shade of the trees, sorting through the vegetables they have just harvested. Meanwhile Eric Huang has taken up his sickle to cut some shell ginger leaves from a field embankment, which they intend to use as wrapping material for packaging their products.
They take up plants like giant elephant’s ear, banana leaves, shell ginger leaves, and lemongrass, gathered from all around, which they use to make up packets of vegetables to take to market to sell the next day, as a way to reduce their use of plastic packaging. In the bright sunshine, the handfuls of greenery are as dazzling as bouquets of flowers.
Displaying fruit and vegetables for sale unpackaged highlights the vitality of fresh foods.
Instead of plastic, we can choose reusable paper egg boxes, which are better for the environment.
Greenpeace uses PET bottles gathered in beach cleanups to make installation art, warning us how urgent the problem of marine plastics pollution has become.
Plastic, plastic, everywhere!
On the consumer side, it was often mothers and grandmothers at home who first got involved in reducing the use of plastic.
It was in 1987, when plastic was not as ubiquitous as it is today, that Lin Kuei-yin foresaw the current situation and began taking her own shopping bag to market. Over 30 years ago, Lin’s initial reason for joining the environmental NGO Homemakers United Foundation (HUF), of which she later became president, was related to plastic reduction.
“Back then I saw Chen Lai-hung [HUF’s founding secretary-general] on TV with her shopping bag initiative, and I thought to myself, isn’t that precisely what I’m worried about?” she recalls.
As people living in the real world, homemakers are not only in control of a family’s meals, but are often also responsible for shopping and taking out the trash. They have seen the transition from traditional to modern society, and as ways of life have changed, they have seen the volume of trash steadily increase. Thinking back to the past, didn’t grandma and greatgrandma always go to the market to shop with baskets or cloth bags? They certainly never engaged in the wasteful behavior of using something once and then throwing it away.
Heirs to traditional virtues like hard work, thrift, and taking good care of household items, homemakers joined the HUF in large numbers. Building on the sense of solidarity within the organization, this group of no-nonsense women took to the streets to advocate for their positions, actively urging people to carry their own reusable eating utensils and shopping bags. They even assisted the government in promoting policies like recycling and the collection of garbage-bag fees.
However, even as disposable chopsticks and melamine plates were gradually disappearing from restaurant dining tables following debates about food safety, there continued to be a disastrous flood of plastic bags, plastic wrap, plastic boxes, and plastic trays.
In March of 2019, Greenpeace started an online petition calling on supermarkets to reduce plastic use. In just three short months, more than 80,000 people signed the petition. This enthusiastic response reflects rising environmental consciousness among citizens.
Cony Chang, energy campaigner for Greenpeace, citing the World Economic Forum report “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics,” says that in fact as much as 26% of the world’s plastics industry is devoted to plastic containers and packaging, 95% of which are single-use.
Although it is claimed that plastic waste is recyclable, only 14% of plastic packaging is actually recycled and reused. In fact, a full one-third ends up in the natural environment, which is where the increasingly severe problem of marine plastic pollution comes from.
Shopping bags, handkerchiefs, eating utensils, and lunch boxes are now fashionable accessories that make “plastic-free” consumers proud.
Unpackaged oil products allow consumers to buy only as much as they will use, eliminating the problem of storing oils beyond their expiration date.
Supermarkets: A crucial battleground
End-user retail consumer products account for the overwhelming majority of plastic trash. Bright and glittering plastic packaging that is thrown away after a single use is inseparable from today’s consumption-driven capitalist societies. How can we get people to change their behavior?
At the “Unpackaged.U” shop, located in the densely populated Sanchong District of New Taipei City, Rex Huang is trying a different approach.
When you step into this shop of some 180 square meters floor area, selling more than 500 product categories, you find that it offers all the daily necessities of life: rice and other grains, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, nuts, dried fruits, tea, and snacks.
At five in the afternoon, as evening approaches, people begin to flood into the quiet shop, with many young mothers showing up with their children. They have been familiar with this store’s purchasing system for a long time. They first take the containers which they have brought with them to the counter to be weighed, so that the weight can be deducted from their purchases. Then they begin shopping.
Whether or not suppliers provide large-sized packaging is an important factor for Rex Huang in making his purchasing decisions. Products that he buys frequently start at five kilograms, and they are placed into different types of containers for storage, depending on the nature of the individual foods. They are not repackaged, and consumers bring their own containers, buying as much or as little as they like.
But what if you forget to bring a container, or you just decide to go buy something on the spur of the moment? Don’t worry, the store also sells glass storage jars. No matter what, the goal is to reduce the amount of plastic used to the minimum.
The HUF, which has always been at the forefront of green lifestyles, is another example. Having developed early on, as early as 1993 they began collective purchasing activities. Starting with only a couple of hundred people, as of today they have built up a consumer cooperative with more than 50 sales outlets and over 70,000 members, showing their determination to use consumer power to change the world for the better.
It is difficult to avoid using packaging materials for fresh foods. The co-op outlets tried out all kinds of experiments, from using paper to wrap vegetables in the early days to reusing returned packaging materials. However, as the volume of supplied products grew ever larger with the growth in membership, and because reuse of plastic bags and egg cartons raised concerns about cross-contamination, after operating for a while the system was brought to a halt.
“We all know that daily life inevitably involves using some plastics,” says Lin Kuei-yin. But despite this fact, they are still doing all they can.
They advocate choosing more costly paper boxes and trays instead of plastic ones. And they dispense with the plastic trays that are used just for aesthetic purposes for things like hot-pot meat slices and frozen dumplings. They also encourage co-op members to reuse the net bags used for carrying root vegetables, melons, and fruit. Finally, if there is really no choice but to use plastic, in principle they try to select the thinnest type that is practical.
The “Unpackaged.U” store maintains the spirit of an old-fashioned general store but has a rigorous approach to quality control in terms of food safety and freshness.
The net bags used for fruits and vegetables by the consumer cooperative of the Homemakers United Foundation are tied with slipknots. Members can return them for reuse, with the return rate reaching 50%. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
Good habits plus a little creativity
It was by no means easy to go against the grain in society and start saying goodbye to plastics.
Starting this July, the government is expanding its plastic reduction policy. It has prohibited the provision of plastic straws to dine-in consumers at four major types of public venues, including government agencies and department stores. Even fast-food leader McDonald’s is responding positively, redesigning cup lids to facilitate consumers drinking directly from the cup in future.
We listen to HUF volunteers like Lin Kuei-yin, Hu Ya-mei, and Hsieh Bi-ru talking about what it was like for them when they started carrying around their own utensils and cups decades ago. In the early days no one understood these women, who proudly call themselves “fundamentalists,” and for a while even their own family members were unwilling to go out with them for a meal.
But they didn’t give up, because homemakers who live through the grind of daily life understand that small actions taken in the ordinary course of life are the real keys to changing society.
When you ask how they manage not to forget everything—shopping bag, eating utensils, thermos cup, and lunchbox—when they go out, these women, who are already grandmothers, laugh out loud as they reply: “It’s just like remembering to bring your reading glasses when you go out. When you’ve left 50 pairs of chopsticks at dining places, then you’ll remember!”
I remember a little shop that I have previously visited called Day’s and Co. in the Blueprint Cultural and Creative Park in Tainan. This shop, selling only a few items, which is operated by the illustrated book author Hsu Mei-yi, works hard to be a plastic-free store.
I especially remember the colored cotton bags that came in three different sizes and could be used for buying bread, rice, and vegetables. The round-cornered design was not only attractive, but made the bags easy to wash. There were also three sizes of square cloth handkerchiefs, which revealed inspired creativity: When you tied together the two rawhide lacings, they would become a mini carrying bag. With different ways of tying them up, they could become a cloth for wrapping boxed lunches or even a bag for carrying drinks cups.
Plastic reduction is perhaps not as difficult as people imagine. If we are willing to build good habits and be a little more creative in the way we manage our lives, that’s enough.
It turns out that the handkerchiefs that students are required to carry in primary school are also helpful in the fight to reduce plastic use.