Reflexive Taiwan Series
An American Beach Boy's Cleaning Journey
“I do care about it,” said Daniel, founder of the coastal cleanup organization RE-THINK. What has brought this American who had never heard of Taiwan before, all the way to this faraway island and become a “Taiwan Beach Boy?”
An American Beach Boy's Cleaning JourneyBy Hocheng Yen
Recently, “Beach Boy” has won himself a reputation in Taiwan, not as a rocker from the 60s, but as the co-founder and CEO of the non-profit environmental organization RE-THINK.
Daniel Gruber, a 35 year-old from Wisconsin, United States, founded this coastal cleanup organization with his friend Chihyang Huang in 2013. Since then, headlines constantly popping up such as “Foreigners Cleaning Your Beach” not only brought overnight fame to this foreigner, but also shed light on environmental issues, raising public awareness of coastline protection.
“This was never in my plan. The idea of setting up RE-THINK was not a conscious goal, but a natural reaction to the rubbish I see,” said the beaming golden brown haired crew-cut boy.
Daniel and Chihyang Huang (Image: Daniel)
The Unexpected Journey of the Beach Boy
As a scuba-diving lover, Daniel once traveled to Little Liuqiu (Lamay Island) five years ago, when a photo of him picking up some trash from the shores taken by a friend of his had gone viral on the Internet. Soon the press came to interview him, pointing him with questions such as “What’s your next move?” His next move was in fact going on a round-island scooter tour, which was understood by the press as a round-island “cleaning tour”—an unintentional deviation that set him off an unexpected “Beach Boy” journey.
“It was Taiwan’s media that made me who I am now,” said Daniel.
But why did he choose to do so? The answer was simple. “I do care about it, because it’s what I love.” Raised in rural America, Daniel has a close relationship with Nature. For a boy who used to dream of becoming someone like Jane Goodall saving orangutans in rain forests, how could he keep his arm folded upon seeing a littered beach?
“Nature is my friend, my teacher. These rubbish are like killers of my true love,” he said.
Since its establishment in 2013, RE-THINK has initiated 65 beach cleanups, hosted more than 40 lectures, and brought over 14 thousand participants to clear out 35 thousand kilograms of rubbish. These years, as beach cleaning becomes a new trend, RE-THINK is definitely one of the main pushers behind.
Just as the birth of RE-THINK, Daniel’s first journey to Taiwan was a beautiful accident. As a lover of travel, he went straight to Hawaii to work as a teacher after completing his degree in the U.S mainland, then travelled all the way to the other side of the Pacific—China, to teach at Disney English. Not quite satisfied with his one-year living experience in Suzhou, his interest and curiosity about Taiwan has grown since he learned about this island from a Taiwanese acquaintance he met during a trip to Vietnam, who had been eagerly sharing with him about the differences between Taiwan and China. Spotting a teaching job vacancy, he soon settled down in Kaohsiung.
“Before all this, I’d never heard of Taiwan,” admitted Daniel. “I grew up playing with toys labeled ‘made-in-Taiwan.’ I asked my mother what Taiwan is, where it is, but she didn’t know either.”
Though a complete stranger to the island, six years later he fell in love with the “land of friendliness.” Once he ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, an old man poured out some gas from his mower to help. Once he left his wallet at a restaurant near his flat, to much of his surprise, the proprietor went knocking from door to door to find him. Besides, as a teacher in Taiwan, he never had to worry about a gunman on campus.
“I fell in love with Taiwan, and I think it’s mutual,” he said with a smile.
Love-Hate Relationship with Taiwan’s Culture of Convenience
What he loves and hates about Taiwan, is the people’s inalienable pursuit of convenience. Being “simple, timely, and budget-friendly” prevails in Taiwan, he observes. One example is the use of plastic bags. Every morning the trash bin at class gets filled up with plastic bags, for one student could use up 2-3 plastic bags for one breakfast meal.
“I do use plastic bags too, occasionally, for life. But what really matters is how to cut down on the use, how to legislate limits for corporations. Charging a dollar or two for each plastic bag is not enough. Perhaps 30 or 50 will do. The price needs to be high enough to turn customers away.” Speaking of plastic waste reduction, Daniel sees no room for compromise on the pricing.
Besides cleaning beaches, he also had his heart set on environmental education, especially for children. As the international education director at Kaohsiung Dah Yung Cambridge International Bilingual School, Daniel designs theme-based inter-disciplinary curriculum that integrates subjects such as environment, science, sociology, and math. For example, if the primary school students are interested in animals, he would introduce animal ecology through an environmental protection perspective, teaching them about endangered species (science, biology), where they inhabit (geography, sociology), and how many of them we are losing (math), cultivating environmental awareness but not sticking to a subject named “environment.”
What Sort of Future Are You Spending A Fortune for?
“Perhaps they will become lawyers, doctors, or the president. You never know. What I know is that if I want to make a difference, I’ll have to start with the generation of the future. Taiwanese parents love their children. They spend fortunes on their children’s future. But what sort of future? A future with plastic wastes floating on the sea or stuck in fish bellies? What I’m doing here is to remind them what sort of future we are creating for our children. The future is theirs, not ours,” he said, sternly.
Apart from education, he founded RE-THINK in hopes of motivating industries to adopt more sustainable practices, to fulfill their corporate social responsibilities. According to him, many corporations have reached them in the past few years, yet some of them are only “greenwashing,” like the one that invited them to co-organize a beach-cleaning event to be kicked off with a parade of hot bikini girls.
“If you want to do it, do it right. If you’re cleaning a beach, don’t buy bottled water for your employees,” said Daniel. “The better way is to change the company from the inside, such as prohibiting the use of plastic bags, or redesigning the packing of the products. What we want to motivate is these small changes.”
CSR: Not Being the Jerk
To Daniel, CSR is not a new concept. Son to the owner of a sports bar, he grew up watching his father cooking turkey for the homeless at Christmas, his mother cleaning houses for disabled or elderly customers. Though at a time when terms like CSR had not been coined yet, contributing to customers and society has long been the eternal key to sustain success.
“Contribute to those who created you, because without them, you won’t be who you are today. Without your employees, your company wouldn’t exist. So cut down on pollution. Help children. To me, that is CSR. Or according to my father’s definition, don’t be the jerk.”
In fact, CSR has become Daniel’s future career goal. Three years ago, his research on CSR within Taiwan’s culture of convenience brought him an MBA degree from Sun Yat-sen University. Currently, he is considering plans for further career development in CSR management in the UK, where language would no longer be a barrier to him.
“I won’t be staying in Taiwan for good, so I have to pass the throne to Chihyang. RE-THINK is for Taiwan. It should be run by Taiwanese. People should come here and do something because they care, not because there’s a foreigner here.” Once the iconic figure of RE-THINK, Daniel is now leaving the stage.
Nevertheless, no matter where he would be in the future, the indelible imprints he has left on the coastlines of Taiwan will never be taken away by the tides of time.
Translated by Sharon Tseng.
【Reflexive Taiwan Series】
In Taiwan, some see a limit in the market, a lack of global thinking, and a lag in the pulse of the world. Some see a small island of people perching besides a large nation, huddling in their own comfort, blunting their wolf spirit. Some even see Taiwan as a ghost island, a jump board for those who leave, but a jail for those who can’t. Yet we also see many visitors in Taiwan, reminding us that Taiwan is good, genuinely good. Through a series of report, from a self-reflective perspective, we would see, would believe, and would achieve the richness and virtue of Taiwan.
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