Jinshan Beach along the north coast was trashed by the time our crew got there on National Taiwan Clean Up Day. So, perfect conditions!
One Brown Planet discovered a full-grown bamboo stalk that we used to load five bags at once. A photo of us with our bounty made the front of the Taipei Times, the most read English newspaper in Taiwan.
Wait, what’s National Taiwan Clean Up Day? This year, volunteers cleared trash from beaches around Taiwan. My American friends who run Taiwan Adventure Outings started it to get in touch with what we have to do to keep Taiwan beautiful. A place locals want to love, and a place travelers want to visit. So, you get a mix of people who come out and want to do something good for each other.
A Little Bit about the Culture of Volunteer Work in Taiwan
National Taiwan Clean Up Day probably shouldn’t have been headline news. But in Taiwan, this is the kind of work many locals full-on dodge because there’s an element of public shaming amongst some out-dated people. Keep in mind that this is anecdotal:
- Volunteer work isn’t a big thing because it’s still work and people want to get paid for work. People in Taiwan often work long hours and try to spend more of it with their families. Groups like ours do get together. But some Taiwanese also believe we are here because we don’t have families to spend time with. Like I said, out-dated, to the core. Besides, once you get to a certain point in your life — your friends are your family.
- People may think you’re doing some kind of community service. Did you do something wrong? People might gossip in an aw-shucks kind of way about what that could be. And locals love to gossip about what expats are doing. If you’re as lucky as I am, they’ll ask you directly. I mean that, because I’d rather deal with issues head-on. Give people something good to talk about!
- Other than outdoorsmen (and women), most Taiwanese go out of their way to avoid getting tan. Some say it makes a person look like a blue-collar worker. Which is a disarming cultural exchange, because Americans see tan and ask where you went on vacation.
Universally, people think there’s always someone else around who will clean up for them — that’s not a Taiwan thing. I wouldn’t point this out if the local characteristic weren’t a little more particular than that, though. People in Taiwan focus more on doing what they’re supposed to because of the rule-of-law that bosses and elders have in East Asian culture. Unfortunately, that also means people leave it to others to “do their jobs.” What does that mean? Someone else will do something about it.
That someone else is us! Because garbage is a problem on Taiwan beaches. Why is there so much trash on the beach? Well, Taiwanese people don’t often go to the beach, so the sands get less attention than they should.
Jinshan Beach before cleanup (Courtesy: XpatMatt)
Speaking for myself, beach clean up is a kind of payback I do for all the beautiful scenery I experience around Taiwan. I don’t deserve any special credit; it’s just being human. And it’s a fantastic way to make new friends who care about the outdoors. Doing this kind of volunteer work also makes obvious the other effects of pollution on quality-of-life. Like food safety, and tourism.
That brings us to the way I see National Clean Up Day. A model for how locals and expats can take on several of these problems at once, through a simple intervention like partnering with each other. We make it meaningful, we make it fun (clearly), and we make it count.
Let’s talk more about these problems.
Singing Garbage Trucks That Clean Cities
Every now and then the Taiwanese show me awesome ingenuity. The cities’ musical garbage trucks is one of my favorite examples. “From Garbage Island to one of the world’s top recyclers, Taiwan (now) keeps its garbage disposal in check.”
However, whatever 垃圾 (lèsè) isn’t thrown away or incinerated tends to end up in nature. If you can’t see something, does it exist? Maybe not. Until the 100 inches of annual rainfall Taiwan gets washes it down to the beach.
Sometimes people go one step further and burn garbage at the beach by digging a hole, setting a fire, and covering it up. Over time, the sand moves, and the trash rises to the top. The ocean also brings in its own garbage from other places. The situation at Jinshan is, well, it’s not great. Mostly, it’s just a lot more of the usual.
- Plastic (bottles, bags, helmets)
- Aluminum cans
- Rubber pieces, gloves, parts of tires
- Broken glass
- Small appliances
- Hypodermic needles
- Somebody’s hand
Okay, I’m kidding about the hand. But this time, the beach looked as if it was carpet-bombed by plastic shrapnel. New pieces, always surfacing. It’s just a guess. Seems the last time they gave Jinshan Beach a facelift, they brought in cheap sand from the bottom of the river — another place where people used to do their dumping.
“Everything that happened in the U.S. in the 60’s is happening in Taiwan now.”
There are still locals who remember when many of these rivers were clear and the water was drinkable. Then, factories and growing towns began dumping more chemicals, and trash into rivers. Two of the assumptions I’ve heard are believing the rushing water would cycle out whatever was unnatural, and that the fish would eat the waste. A two-some of wishful thinking.
People came up with their own reasons for justifying dumping. As an early administrator of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency, Jaw Shau-Kong 趙少康, explains, “When people are poor, their only concern is making money. They say, ‘When we become rich, we’ll do something about the environment.’ But once they become rich, they find it’s too late. That’s the way it always is.”
Typhoons clear these dump sites at rivers. (Courtesy: Taiwan Today)
Speaking of, in 1987, Taiwan started its own Environmental Protection Agency, realizing “everything that happened in the U.S. in the 60’s is happening in Taiwan now.” At the time, Chang Kow-lung, a physics professor at National Taiwan University, told the New York Times, “nearly every river has been polluted to the extent that the water is pronounced dead — it is dead water.”
For a bureaucracy, the EPA acted quickly, but by 2000, illegal dumping was still only illegal-by-day, according to this letter in Nature magazine. “Taiwan currently has just one secure landfill, in Kaohsiung. It cannot handle all the toxic waste it produces, hence the government is seeking cash-starved countries that will dispose of it for a hefty fee. In a high-profile case last year, Cambodia returned 2,700 tons of Taiwan’s mercury-laced waste after several deaths near the disposal site.”
It’s not as drastic now. Taiwan is in much better shape than the United States and other Asian countries — like China. The government is heavy into clean up. Natural restoration. And getting more serious about penalties. In 2013, Taiwan shut down ASE’s K7 plant in Kaohsiung. ASE was discharging “industrial wastewater containing the heavy metal nickel and other toxic substances into a nearby river.”
Practical Considerations for Daily Living
Every action has a totally unexpected WTF reaction, when it comes to dumping toxic chemicals. In the Kaohsiung case, it was also affecting rice paddies down the river. One of the reasons some Taiwan foodies swear by importing their rice from Japan.
The average person doesn’t have to care about saving the planet. They should care about their surroundings. There are practical considerations affecting quality of life for ordinary Taiwanese, like this example. It’s not like you can throw a couple of magic eggs into a wok and fry the heavy metals out of the rice.
“When people are poor, their only concern is making money. They say, ‘When we become rich, we’ll do something about the environment.’ But once they become rich, they find it’s too late. That’s the way it always is.” – Head of Taiwan EPA
Also, recreation. Huang Tsai-Jung grew up near the Tamsui River. “It was very clean, especially during high tide, and when you dove into the water you could see brilliantly colored fish.” What stands out to me is the span in which this level of pollution happened took less than two generations to take root.
Taiwan’s iconic Sun Moon Lake isn’t invincible, either. The lake is a much different now than 20 years ago, because of fertilizer run-off. Sun Moon Lake is still a beautiful lake nestled in the central mountains. But tourists like myself are figuring out the bureau sometimes uses old photos. Good thing people have Instagram!
Tacos, Corona, and Clean Up! Or, How to Attract Tourists
Taiwan is constantly asking itself what it can do to bring more travelers. It’s a big question that deserves more than this paragraph, but the simplest thing everyone can do is to clean up after themselves.
When we were done, Jinshan Beach became a little more like the kind of beach that looks clean, not just from afar. On a good day, surfers come here, looking for an under-the-radar cove. There are a lot of positives to having surfers around. They clean up after themselves (usually). They’re friendly. They bring friends. And they tend to be Westerners, whom Taiwanese love to see.
In fact, I’m pretty sure if you told the local residents that to draw more Western tourists, all you had to do was: 1) Clean up the beach, and 2) Open a tacos and Corona stand, they’d be on it.
So, Jinshan and a lot of other lightly populated areas like it has the potential for much more casual tourism. Only if people take better care of the land.
The bridge to Jinshan Beach. In the back, you can see Yehliu Geopark.
Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau kind of already knows this.
Taoyuan International Airport greets travelers with beautiful large format images of some of Taiwan’s statement destinations. Many of the more popular stops are starting to become overrun by trash. Same as in every country, but in Taiwan, it’s lately gotten worse. A combination of having a reputation for beautiful scenery, and a reputation for low cost of traveling. You end up having to go further out – like Hehuanshan – to get to the good stuff.
For Taiwan to stay special, the most popular hikes can’t involve colonies of fleas at the summit, because hikers are leaving their garbage behind. It’s normal to find garbage at the top of many California mountains, but you shouldn’t find it at Yangmingshan Mountain, if we’re assuming Taiwan’s goal is to bring in more foreign visitors. Isn’t it?
No one comes to Taiwan to see the garbage. Taiwan is still much, much cleaner than many other places in Asia, but those places don’t have the same reputation Taiwan has for scenery. Making Taiwan a more beautiful place to live and visit is a project locals and expats need to continue working on.
If you’d like to join the next beach clean up, Contact Me or TAO! They’re also running a TravelStarter campaign to raise funds for a 12-passenger van, in case you’re feeling generous!
Jinshan Beach, after the clean up