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Taiwan Extends Plastic Bag Ban

Beverage ban
Beverage ban: drinks retailers will fall within the remit of Taiwan's extended plastic bag legislation (photo: Shutterstock.com)

With its 15-year-old ban on free plastic bags set to be extended to a wider range of retail sectors starting in January, Taiwan is looking to confirm its reputation for environmental responsibility and eco-friendly legislation. With a goal of reducing the number of plastic shopping bags used annually by 1.5 billion, Taiwan has announced plans to widen the ban to seven additional retail sectors. The island initially restricted the free supply of plastic carrier bags in seven retail sectors in 2002, with the move said to have drastically reduced the use of the environmentally unfriendly bags.

The ban extension will see several high-street retail sectors – including bakeries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and beverage outlets – barred from providing free carrier bags to customers for the first time, widening the number of businesses affected from its current level of 20,000 to 100,000.

Plastics have long been the bane of environmental proponents. While their lightness, durability and low cost have appealed to a wide range of manufacturers, the sheer number of non-biodegradable, unrecyclable plastic products – including a huge volume of used carrier bags – poses a major environmental threat.

Taiwan was among the first to respond, 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, including in Asia. In the Chinese mainland, 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 plastic bag levy.

PR Initiative

In Taiwan, under the terms of the 2002 ban introduced by the island'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 0.06 millimetres, while a compulsory levy was introduced on the distribution of bags with a thickness of 0.06 millimetres or more. The Waste Disposal Act also specified that violators would face a fine of NT$1,200-6,000 (US$40-US$200).

Following the initial legislation, a public-relations initiative was launched to persuade Taiwanese consumers to bring their own shopping bags. 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 hasn't been drastic enough to make a lasting impact. In particular, it was felt that the distribution of such bags should be entirely curtailed, rather than merely 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 0.06 millimetres. While the move has led to a reduction in the overall number of bags in circulation, estimated at 20 billion a year, it arguably led to an increase in the total volume of plastic used.

Ban Addresses Shortcomings

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, the island's revised regulations also respond to moves by the United Nations to prioritise protecting the marine environment this year, particularly with regard to countering plastics-related pollution.

Against such a backdrop, the EPA's move to extend its plastics ban has been widely welcomed. Some 80,000 outlets in the cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, 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. While 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.

To further boost the effectiveness of the new regulations, the EPA will work with government bodies in Taipei and New Taipei to re-purpose used carrier bags in the garbage-collection sector.

Coinciding with the plastic bag ban extension, 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 posed by these microbeads, which are resistant to sewage treatment filtration and known to compromise ecosystems, warrants immediate action.

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