Environmental groups held ocean cleanup events across northern Taiwan on Sunday last week, attracting 205 participants, organizer Greenpeace Taiwan said in a statement on Tuesday.
The volunteers collectively removed 1 tonne of debris from the coast between Miaoli County and New Taipei City, about half of which was discarded fishing equipment, including nets and buoys, Greenpeace said, adding that it has launched a petition through the Public Policy Online Participation Platform urging the government to speed up the drafting of a marine conservation bill.
Another beach cleanup, in Penghu County on April 24, organized by the county government, attracted more than 1,000 volunteers. The county told the Central News Agency that it had organized more than 700 cleanups over the past three years.
It is clear that local governments and the public are keen to keep the nation’s coastlines clean, so the issue should not be left to the goodwill of volunteers. Local governments are not obliged by law to have beaches cleaned, and public workers rarely do so except where beaches fall within the boundaries of a national park. Counties and cities might also not have the funding to put much effort into beach cleanups.
There are several reasons for local governments to want their coastlines free of plastic and other debris. Aside from being unsightly, such waste threatens birds, marine life and other animals that frequent coastal areas. Refuse that is mistaken by animals for food often ends up in the food chain, and is eventually consumed by humans. A study titled “Microplastics: A Threat for Male Fertility,” published in March last year by the US-based National Library of Medicine, said that exposure to the plasticizer bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, “interferes in the first round of spermatogenesis, impairs the formation of the blood testis barrier and affects the expression profiles on non-coding RNA and sperm quality.”
The effect of plastics on human reproductive health should be especially concerning in Taiwan, where the birthrate is declining to unsustainable levels. Given the importance of removing ocean debris from the coastline and its nearby waters, the national government should account for the cost of waste removal in its annual budget. Counties and municipalities with coastlines should also be required to hire staff to remove marine debris.
Some ocean waste originates from other countries, but pollutants from Taiwan or its fishing industry can be drastically reduced through a multi-tier approach. Greenpeace has said that to truly eliminate plastic waste, such items must be cut off at the source. The government has started that process by charging for plastic shopping bags and mandating discounts for takeout beverage cups, but much more can be done.
Funding should be put into research of biodegradable or fully recyclable packaging alternatives. Current efforts are focused on encouraging people to carry reusable bags, cups, containers and utensils when eating out, but consumers ultimately do what is most convenient — just as the alternatives must be.
As nearly half of marine waste is from fishing boats, the government must also tackle the industry’s debris by making nets, buoys and other items traceable to the vessels they are used on. This could be done with identifying marks or through embedded radio-frequency identification chips, with the addition of a points system that rewards fishers for bringing their refuse back to shore.
Marine waste is a global problem, but as an island nation that relies on its fisheries, Taiwan especially must do what it can to reduce debris in its marine environment. Greenpeace and volunteers have worked tirelessly to tackle the problem, but it should not be left entirely to volunteer groups to solve. The government should take responsibility for ensuring that the nation’s waters and wildlife remain healthy.
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