October 31, 2019 By Grayson Shor
“If you go to some Taiwan beaches, you can see snow,” said Chieh-Shen (Jason) Hu, Ocean Initiative Coordinator for Taiwan’s Society of Wilderness, a 6,000-member organization similar to Sierra Club. Hu was referring to pervasive Styrofoam marine debris from western Taiwan’s oldest industry, oyster aquaculture.
In April 2019, the Taiwan Fisheries Agency invited me to tour Tainan City’s local oyster aquaculture industry as part of my Boren Fellowship research. Standing on Tainan’s coast, I saw this “snow” in the endless piles of discarded and broken Styrofoam buoys.
According to Taiwan’s first ever island-wide marine debris survey conducted by the Society of Wilderness and Greenpeace in 2018, white Styrofoam Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) buoys used in oyster aquaculture are among the most pervasive debris along the island’s western coastline. A short drone-filmed video provides a bird’s eye view of this extensive problem.
Taiwan’s struggle with Styrofoam pollution is common across East Asia. China is home to the largest oyster farming industry in the world and its huge floating aquaculture farms utilize vast amounts of Styrofoam to raise bivalve shellfish (clams, mussels, and oysters). In Japan, Styrofoam accounted for 99.5 percent of total marine debris collected in a survey of 50 kilometers of coastline. In South Korea, the world’s second largest oyster producer, researchers at the Korean Institute of Ocean Science and Technology released an extensive study detailing how the 6 million Styrofoam buoys used by its shellfish industry transfer harmful chemicals to shellfish.
Taiwan’s struggles and experiments to halt Styrofoam pollution from oyster aquaculture can offer insights to other regions.
Taiwan’s Booming Aquaculture Business
Oyster farming is a significant portion of Taiwan’s substantial aquaculture industry. In 2015, half a million fishers and industry workers raised and processed fish, crustaceans, and shellfish across 40,000 hectares (equal to approximately 150,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of ocean and river farms. Each year, aquaculture generates 18.4 percent of Taiwan’s agricultural GDP.
Huge Styrofoam buoys keep Tainan’s bamboo oyster rafts afloat. Suspended beneath them are clusters of oyster spat that swing like string puppets in the ocean. A licensed farmer will have approximately 60 rafts that require 700 to 900 blocks of Styrofoam. In Tainan City 200 farmers own 9,000 rafts. Each raft costs about US$650 and is discarded after one year, before the Styrofoam disintegrates.
Stemming the Tide of Styrofoam Pollution
Ocean technology researchers at Cheng Kung University in Tainan estimate that a third of the 120,000 to 200,000 Styrofoam buoys used annually by oyster farmers wash up on beaches after severe weather or when illegally released. Some farmers do not want to or cannot afford to properly dispose of buoys. These disposal problems prompted the Tainan government to take a four-pronged approach to deal with Styrofoam buoys.
- In 2010, Tainan’s Extended Producer Responsibility scheme required all oyster farmers to register all of their rafts, pay a per-raft fee, and mount a personalized flag on each raft. This move has reduced illegal oyster farming by 94 percent and decreased raft dumping.
- During the summer typhoon season beginning in July, the government bans ocean oyster aquaculture and provides subsidies to help farmers remove the rafts.
- Oyster farmers may deposit their Styrofoam buoys at government collection points and receive NT$30 (US$1) per buoy. In 2015 and 2016, when the deposit scheme was established, 12,000 buoys were collected, representing 25 percent of the buoys landfilled or abandoned at sea the year before.
- On October 1, 2019, the Tainan government banned the particularly fragile EPS buoys. Violators will be fined NT$10,000 (US$326) for each raft using an EPS buoy.
Prior to the 2019 Styrofoam ban, the local government, fishery associations, and businesses worked to design and market sustainable buoys. Alternative options such as Expanded Polypropylene (EPP) and High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) buoys are more resistant to disintegration than EPS buoys. EPS buoys with net bags are cheap and prevent Styrofoam particles from leaking into the ocean, yet these pieces may eventually be released through a large hole in the top of the bag. (See infographic for comparison of the bad buoys).
Of the Styrofoam options, HDPE is the most sustainable. But farmers dislike it, said Wu Zhen-Li, manager of one of Taiwan’s 41 fishing associations in Tainan, because “HDPE buoys are too difficult to push and tie down under the bamboo rafts while on the water, and they’re too expensive.”
How the Tainan Government Can Close the Loop
While widespread Styrofoam pollution is unacceptable, a ban does not take into account the economic challenges facing oyster farmers who use cheap polluting buoys because of their uncertain income. One promising solution to help farmers and reduce Styrofoam marine debris is to promote circular business models that create revenue streams out of aquaculture wastes—specifically old buoys and oyster shells.
Taiwan is currently undergoing a golden age of circular economy innovation, such as the Taiwanese technology that converts used buoys into lightweight, durable building materials and processes oyster shells into an adhesive widely used in pharmaceuticals. Such upcycling of aquaculture wastes can increase the selling price of oyster shells fivefold and incentivize farmers to sell instead of dump buoys. To jumpstart policies that accelerate such closed-loop action to halt Styrofoam debris in the ocean the Tainan government could:
- Establish a market for oyster farming waste by instituting an increased sales tax on Styrofoam and other polluting buoys rather than a ban. The money could fund subsidies to companies that upcycle oyster farming “waste” into new products. Some tax funds could help halt illegal dumping and support public awareness campaigns on the adverse effects of marine debris.
- Expand plastic-free ocean collaboration and data gathering with the Taiwan Marine Waste Management Action Plan working group, a coalition of Taiwan EPA and environmental NGOs working to set an agenda to achieve Taiwan’s plastic-free ocean goal by 2030. Specifically, focus on copying and expanding the Rapid Assessment marine debris data collection model to better understand the sources and impacts of Styrofoam marine pollution.
- Generate new circular economy strategies for oyster aquaculture by creating a local forum for information and idea-sharing between the Tainan Fisheries Agency, local fisheries associations, and Taiwan’s abundant Circular Economy businesses and research institutes such as ITRI.
These closed-loop models driven by community involvement and empirical data can go a long way in helping Taiwan clear the “snow” from its beautiful beaches.
Grayson Shor was a 2018–2019 Boren Fellow in Taiwan where he focused on technology and regulatory innovations that enable sustainable material and waste management, zero-waste consumer product design and manufacturing, and Circular Economy business models. He is now in Washington D.C., working on waste issues at the U.S. Department of State.
Sources: Central News Agency, Clear Seas, Da Feng Environmental Protection, “Goods and Services of Marine Bivalves” edited by A. Smaal, J. Ferreira, J. Grant, J. Petersen, and O. Strand, Greenpeace, Industrial Technology Research Institute, Japanese Journal of Fisheries Science, Ocean and Coastal Management, Taipei Times, Total Taipei, Xinhua.
Photo Credit: Photo used with permission of Yen Ning and Chieh-Shen (Jason) Hu, IndigoWater Institution. All rights reserved.