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Taiwan's Outlying Islands in Distress

China's Tide of Trash


China's Tide of Trash


The coasts of Taiwan's islands in the Taiwan Strait are being overwhelmed by garbage floating in from China. The invasion is changing how the islanders see China and costing Taiwanese taxpayers, but Beijing has done little to stem the tide.



China's Tide of Trash

By Kwangyin Liu, Jung-Shin Ho, Jenny Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 551 )

A romantic story about a message in a bottle across the seas, this is not. Rather, this is a story about the nightmare of unrelenting armies of invading Chinese garbage tormenting residents – and officials – of Taiwan's outlying islands.

The floating garbage from the Jiulong and Min rivers (Jiulongjiang and Minjiang) and coastal aquaculture farms in Fujian Province is overwhelming the Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu archipelagos.

As fast as China's economy has grown, environmental awareness has lagged far behind, and the islands have been forced to endure the garbage delivered by ocean currents. Any major downpour or typhoon only exacerbates the situation, driving massive volumes of trash down the Fujian rivers and into the Taiwan Strait, making it impossible for the islands to ever fully clean up the mess.

How long will island residents have to live with this garbage, and how can the islands' children avoid being scarred by this nightmare?

Matsu: National Wetlands Become Chinese Dump

CommonWealth Magazine went to Nangan Island in the Matsu island chain, which lies about 25 kilometers from the mouth of the Min River, to get a first-hand look at the problem in Qingshui Village, home to the "Qingshui Wetlands." This 12-hectare estuary has been designated by Taiwan's Construction and Planning Agency as a national wetland, but CommonWealth was welcomed not by the fiddler crabs the area is known for, but by mounds of floating trash and Styrofoam.

"Matsu gets about 500 tons of floating garbage a year, but only about 60 percent of it can be cleaned up. The rest gets stuck on wave breakers or submerged reefs and just accumulates," says Shou-hua Chang, the frustrated director-general of the Environmental Protection Bureau of Lienchiang County, which administers the Matsu archipelago.

Ironically, the Chinese crested tern, described as Matsu's "bird of myth" because it was considered extinct before being spotted by a photographer around 2000, has experienced an odd twist of fate with the garbage.

Six years ago, Chang, who is also the executive director of Taiwan's Wild Bird Federation, was taking a group of tourists on a boat to the island of Beigan (just north of Nangan) to go birding when he discovered a tern that had a Chinese yogurt bottle stuck on its lower beak. Had the object not been removed, the bird could have died of starvation. A photo of the bird was posted on the Internet, and it became a celebrity in the world birding community. To Chang's surprise, the bird turned up in a wetland at the mouth of the Min River 20 days later, indicating that the rare terns spend their courtship period on the Chinese coast and breed in Matsu.

The floating trash nearly killed the "bird of myth," but instead it became the matchmaker for cross-Taiwan Strait cooperation on tern research and student exchanges.

Two years ago, Monica Kuo, dean of Chinese Culture University's Graduate Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning, began taking exchange students from Minjiang University in Fuzhou to Matsu to help clean up the islands' beaches.

"I told them, 'You have come to Matsu to pick up garbage from your hometown. You can experience how much the two sides of the strait influence each other,'" Kuo recalls.

This form of "shock education" left a major impression on one of the Minjiang students, who posted a message online under a pseudonym describing the experience.

"The event has ended, but I'm still in shock. The deep blue sea in front of us is full of garbage. We felt ashamed as we picked up this garbage in Matsu that had floated across the water. We were looking at garbage that we were familiar with, that represented brands we had eaten, and this is how people in Matsu are learning about Chinese brands," the post read.

The Matsu Islands are not the only Taiwan-held islands under pressure from Chinese trash. Further south, just kilometers across the water from the Chinese city of Xiamen, the Kinmen Islands are turning the floating garbage into a focus of education.

Kinmen: Growing up in a Sea of Garbage

"The first time I went to the coast, I was really stunned. I kept thinking, 'How could there be so much?'" gasped Hsu Chen-hsin, a ninth-grader at Jinning Junior High School in Kinmen County. She was describing the experience she and three other students had in cleaning up a local beach last year as part of a science fair project on the garbage build-up.

In the process, they discovered empty bottles of a beverage brand called "Shuang Wai Wai" scattered everywhere and decided to make them the focus of their project. They wanted to calculate how long it took for the bottles to get to Kinmen and figure out the current's direction and speed.

"No matter when you go to the coast, you can always pick up 'Shuang Wai Wai,'" Yang Chun-chi, one of Hsu's partners on the project, says confidently.

Adults who spent their childhood in Kinmen remember going to the beach to look for seaweed to feed their pigs. Their children, on the other hand, now associate the beach with garbage floating over from China.

According to Kinmen County Environmental Protection Bureau figures, the county has spent more than NT$50 million over the past nine years to clean up the Chinese mess. A total of 600 tons of garbage was collected last year alone, and the volume continues to rise.

Penghu: The Never-ending Flow of Trash

In the Penghu Islands, roughly 150 kilometers from the Chinese coastline, some local residents have turned the nightmarish tide into installation art.

Nanliao Village in Huxi Township in the eastern half of Penghu's main island gives the appearance of an outdoor museum, with colorful spheres sitting along the top of low brick walls. Only a closer inspection reveals the spheres to be floats commonly used by fishermen and fish farmers.

Village chief Chao Chia-hsieh took CommonWealth Magazine to visit the artist, Chao Chang-shou, who is in his early 80s. In a tent put up by the artist in his yard using bamboo poles he collected, more than 300 floats that he polished and painted are swaying in the breeze.

If you look closely, you can see the characters for place names such as "Zhejiang" or "Qingdao" on the painted objects, leaving no doubt about where they came from.

Chao Chang-shou says that when he has nothing to do, he loves to ride his 125cc motorbike to the shore to collect floats, and he still has a pile of a few thousand in his back yard, a symbol of how much Chinese garbage shows up on Penghu's coast.

Whenever the county's Environmental Protection Bureau cleans up the shore in Nanliao Village, workers take away at least 10 trucks of garbage, according to Chao Chia-hsieh.

"It's pointless. As soon as the northeasterly winds begin, they just blow more garbage in," says the village chief helplessly.

Having seasonal winds blow in more garbage even as Taiwan's outlying islands struggle to clear what has already piled up is a problem common to all of them.

Lienchiang County Commissioner Yang Sui-sheng put up a net off the coast made of nearly 100 plastic containers tied together with rope, to prevent the garbage from floating in. But some local residents see the plan as a failure.

An environmentalist familiar with the project said that if China does not control the flow of garbage at the source, the trash will still float on the water even if you try to intercept it, and the problem will still exist.

"It just puts the problem out of sight," the environmentalist says.

The floating garbage has also given the Kinmen National Park Administration a big headache, especially because about a quarter of Kinmen's coastline is under its jurisdiction.

At the beginning of this year, the Park Administration received NT$9 million in funding from the national government's Ministry of the Interior to conduct a full-scale cleanup, but when it first issued a public tender for the work, there were no takers, because of the job's difficulty. Only following the ninth tender in May was the county able to find a willing contractor.

Like many other officials responsible for dealing with the problem, Kinmen National Park deputy director Lu Shui-fei feels frustrated and helpless. She explains that the Styrofoam used by Chinese fish farmers washing up on the islands' shores has to be cleaned  and crushed, but too much of the material has built up on Lieyu Island (also known as "Little Kinmen") for it to be processed. As a result, it is being temporarily stored on an abandoned military base, waiting to be shipped back to Taiwan to be broken down.

Taiwanese Paying for China's Trash

Local governments have tried to work with China to solve the problem, with Kinmen foremost among them.

"Floating garbage is indeed the nightmare of outlying islands," says Kinmen County Environmental Protection Bureau director-general Yang Shih-hung. To deal with some of the refuse, the county spent over NT$4 million to buy the first self-propelled sand cleaning machine in the country.

Kinmen County Commissioner Li Wo-shi stresses that Kinmen and Xiamen hold annual environmental meetings to discuss the garbage and air pollution coming from China, and he says there has been gradual progress over the past few years.

Because the outlying islands lack incinerators, however, the Chinese garbage collected in Kinmen and Penghu is shipped to Kaohsiung to be incinerated, while the trash gathered in Matsu is sent to Keelung. Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) says it subsidizes Kinmen and Matsu to the tune of more than NT$4 million for cleanup efforts.

In other words, China is letting its neighbor shoulder its problem, allowing its garbage to drift to Taiwan's outlying islands and having Taiwanese taxpayers foot the bill to process it.

Ultimately, when Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu clean up the mess, they are simply treating the symptoms. Only if China deals with the trash at its source can the problem truly be solved. That will depend on cooperation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

EPA deputy chief Yeh Shin-cheng says that China is taking the garbage problem seriously and has put in place a "governance plan for floating garbage in Xiamen-Kinmen waters." And when he went to Kunming last year to meet with China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, the trash problem was one of the issues on the agenda, Yeh says.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that China's environmental ministry has little say in the matter because three other Chinese government agencies are responsible for floating trash – the State Oceanic Administration under the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Fisheries Bureau under the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. All the environmental ministry can do is to try to help from the sidelines.

According to Yeh, Taiwan and China agreed in February to put environmental protection cooperation on the agenda during their next round of official negotiations, which means there may be an environmental protection accord in the future. In the meantime, however, Chinese trash continues to pile up in Taiwan's outlying counties with impunity, turning pristine islands into dumps.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier