The Over-Educated Garbage Man

Minister Winston Dang of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration

By Hugh S. Galford

Minister Winston Dang addressed a small gathering of journalists at the National Press Club on August 17, 2007. Head of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration, Dang outlined the progress Taiwan has made on environmental issues and the challenges the country faces. His passion for his work is evident; he repeatedly referred to himself by his nickname in Taiwan — “the over-educated garbage man.”

The two major issues facing Taiwan are climate change and air pollution, mainly from China. “The impact of climate change on Taiwan is getting worse,” the minister says, noting that there were more days last year when the temperature was above 35 C (98 F) than at any time in the prior century. Air pollution from China is also a major concern. Dust storms in Taiwan, originating in China’s northwest provinces, “are so bad that you can’t open your eyes.” Even more damaging is the industrial pollution that is blown over Taiwan. Dang says that China’s mercury levels are twice the background standard and cites a 2000 study that reported China’s mercury emissions as 28 percent of the global total. The question for Taiwan, Dang says, is “How do we minimize damage from poor air quality controls?”

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Australia in September, Taiwan “wants to initiate a series of ‘Green APEC’ opportunities.” Dang says these include green production, consumption and industries; nature preservation; and pollution prevention. More ambitious is President Chen’s proposal to establish a World Environmental Organization — analogous to the World Health Organization — to open dialogue and build cooperation among the world’s countries.

While Taiwan has good relations with the US, Canada, EU and, from last year, Japan, on environmental issues, “we have never had formal official contact with China — yet.” Dang says that Taiwanese and Chinese scientists and academics have met, leading to the exchange of information and data collection, but “high-level meetings are needed for policies.”

Born in 1943, Dang graduated from Taipei Medical University and went on to obtain his MA from Columbia, his PhD from CUNY and his MPH from Harvard. Dang worked at the US Food and Drug Administration from 1989-1990 and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1990-2005. He then returned to Taiwan, serving in the Legislative Yuan from 2005-2007 and as the Democratic Progressive Party’s Director of the Department of International Affairs in 2006-2007. He was named Director of Taiwan’s EPA earlier this year.

Taiwan’s EPA was founded in 1987 due to the “profound influence” of NGOs and environmental groups. The minister likened the process to that in the US, where publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to the establishment of the EPA. “There was strong popular awareness of environmental issues in Taiwan in the early 1980s,” Dang says, “which forced the government’s hand. The process has been bottom-up.” These groups continue to have great influence, leaving Dang to note that he “walks a tightrope” between environmentalists and those focused solely on economic growth.

Despite the struggle, Taiwan has made tremendous progress in the past 20 years. The country ranks first in the world for its recycling rate. In 2006, Taiwan recycled approximately 36 percent of its waste; the US, by comparison, recycled around 30 percent. Taiwan has a recycling goal of 45 percent by 2012, as part of an eventual zero-waste policy. The government has instituted a number of highly successful programs, among them banning the use of plastic utensils and cups in restaurants and government offices. Further, a mandatory household recycling program — covering standard recyclables (glass, plastic, etc.) and food waste (which is composted) — has led to a drop in daily per capita waste levels from 1.16 Kg to 0.6 Kg. This, the minister says, has resulted in some municipalities “needing to buy garbage to burn,” he says.

Dang emphasizes that just as Taiwan learned about environmentalism from the US, “China can learn from Taiwan. We paid a high environmental price for focusing on economic development in the 1960s and ’70s,” he says. “We are now moving forward, but China is where Taiwan was.”

The minister also says that the US should help China’s progress toward more environmentally responsible practices. China’s CO2 emissions, he says, “are as much as six percent — and growing — above US emissions. In addition, 60 to 70 percent of the mercury pollution in the US comes from China. These emissions are a global problem, and require a global solution.”

China, Dang says, “has claimed since 2003 that it would be a responsible stakeholder in global environmental issues. The only way to protect the environment, though, is through investment — or you pay the price later.” To live up to its claim, he says, China’s option is either to slow down growth or invest in technology.

“China must be aware that the victims of pollution exist both inside and beyond the Wall. Environmental issues are without boundaries, and to solve them we must keep politics at a minimum.”