Changing Planet

Chasing Truth (Part 1): Taxi Rides & Plastic Plants

“环保 (huánbǎo)? Environmental Protection? That’s good. We need that here.” The cab driver nodded his head in approval. “你看 (Nǐ kàn), Look, there’s trash everywhere.”

I glanced out the window. We were heading north on Taoyuan’s major highway to ChungHua Plastic Industry Co., Ltd., a plastics manufacturer in the Cisco-Meraki electronics supply chain. My appointment was at 14:00 with a team of engineers who nicely agreed over email to let me interview them about their work in the plastics industry.

Interestingly, I couldn’t spot any trash among the dark green shrubs. Instead, I was acutely aware of the number of cars on our side of the freeway. 13:55. My mind flashbacked to last week’s interview at the E&E Electronic Recycling Facility, where I was two hours late and in the wrong city.

My fate was now in Mr. Chen’s hands– literally, two hands on the wheel and right foot expertly switching between gas and brake petals.

Entrance to Chunghua Plastics Industry Co. Ltd. – Taoyuan, Taiwan. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

Mr. Chen was a natural conversationalist; within moments of me stepping into the backseat of his yellow cab, we covered the basics:

Q: 你從哪裡來? Where are you from?
A: 美國.  The United States.
Q: 你在台灣教英文嗎? Are you here to teach English?
A: 不是, 我在台灣工作. No, I’m here to work.
Q: Oh?
工作? What kind of work?
A:
我做垃圾處理的研究的研究. 环保事. I’m researching Taiwan’s waste management system. Environmental protection stuff.

This line piqued Mr. Chen’s interest. He asked what I thought about Taiwan’s waste management system, and I told him that I thought Taipei City was doing a good job with their sorting and recycling program. He shook his head.

我不骗你.” I’m not deceiving you. “They just dump it into the ocean. Everybody knows, but they all just turn their heads. 他們不在乎. Nobody cares—they throw their trash anywhere, because 很方便, it’s convenient.”

His statement threw me off a little. Was there a side to this issue that I hadn’t yet learned about? His perspective was important to me because this was his home; what he experienced and observed was his truth.

I thought about my own experience. So far, all I had seen were government facilities, data pointing to positive recycling increases from academic conferences, and The Wall Street Journal’s glowing review of Taiwan’s garbage disposal system.

On the whole, it seemed positive: the incinerator, furniture recycling plant, electronics waste recycling factory, Buddhist nonprofit recycling center and its entrepreneurial affiliate that made high-tech apparel out of recycled PET bottles, the neighborhood grannies who collected cardboard boxes, bags, and plastic bottles from storefronts and trash bins every night. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but it seemed better than most other places.

Suddenly, uncertainty flooded my mind. As a storyteller, my duty is to discover the truth and share the whole narrative. Whose story hadn’t I heard yet? How could I reconcile between two narratives that stood on opposite ends of the spectrum? What is the truth?

We exited the freeway. “5 more minutes,” he interjected.

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I pressed for more details. “But this is our home. We only have one earth, 我们只有一个地球 (wǒmen zhǐyǒu yīgè dìqiú). We should protect it, 應該保護的 (yīnggāi bǎohù de),” I said. He kept his eyes on the road as we weaved in and out of neighborhoods, drawing closer and closer to my first plastics factory visit.

“We may all live on one earth 地球 (dìqiú), but all people see and care about is what’s right in front of them—their place, 地方 (dìfāng).” The alliteration of “dìqiú” and “dìfāng” was ironically poetic.

“You can talk all you want about the need to protect the earth and save it for the children, but if they don’t see the changes immediately in their neighborhood, those arguments aren’t going to influence anybody.”

The Conference Room

His perspective continued to weigh down on my mind long after he pulled onto a sandy dirt road and dropped me off in front of a standalone four-story building. I walked up the five tile steps, pushed past the glass doors and smiled at the startled security guard. I guess he didn’t see a lot of Middle-Eastern looking females who speak Chinese on the day-to-day.

Three members of the Chunghua team—one a professor, the other an engineer, the third a marketing manager— met me in their conference room. We sat on opposite sides of the long, wide wooden table; a tray of small plastic water bottles and individually-wrapped mints bridged the gap.

Two men and one woman faced me, and we all looked a little nervous. They didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t know what to expect. It was the usual case scenario.

(From left to right): Zack, Iris, and Ray – the three Chunghua Plastics team members who shared their perspective on plastics in Taiwan. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

I reached for the business cards tucked in the side pocket of my brown camera bag. They all stood, and we exchanged information. “這是我的名片 (Zhè shì wǒ de míngpiàn). This is my business card,” I said in Chinese, and with both hands handed each person the self-made Fulbright – National Geographic golden ticket of legitimacy.

We all sat back down. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lilly Sedaghat, and I’m a Fulbright – National Geographic Storyteller studying Taiwan’s waste management system and the tension between circular economy initiatives and the plastics industry.”

I could feel the sweat starting to form on my temples. A single bead slide down my spine. Speaking Chinese always made me nervous—it was a perfectionist thing—because I knew that some, if not most, of my Chinese wasn’t 100% correct.

“The son of my high school teacher is your client, and they connected me to you.” They all nodded.

“We Googled you to see who was coming,” Ray said smiling. The man sitting on my left was the first to speak. I guessed he was in his late thirties, the sleeves of his striped blue collared shirt casually rolled back at the wrists. He had a strong build and large brown eyes that shined under the florescent lighting. The professor.

“Hopefully, it was all good stuff,” I joked back, surprised at direct disclosure. I was impressed. They wanted to be prepared.

(Above: A short video clip on how plastic pieces for modems are made. Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

As this was my third month into the fellowship, I’d picked up on a few interview skills and set the ground rules for the conversation. “We can use Chinese,” I said, and watched as their facial expressions washed over with relief. “We are in Taiwan, so of course we should use 中文 (Zhōngwén) Chinese.“

To me, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t understand every word; this was an opportunity to pose questions to experts in the field (and record our conversation for future reference), and I knew that they would be able to clearly express what they wanted to express if they used their native tongue. Plus, I had taken three trains and a 45-min taxi cab to get there. I wanted to get as much information as I could.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to understand?” the other man Zack asked.

I nodded and flashed a big smile. “當然 (Dāngrán). Of course.”

——————-

Chasing Truth: Part II will feature the key takeaways of our conversation, including what plastic experts want you to know about plastic, and their perspective on Taiwan’s waste management system. 

Lillygol Sedaghat is a multi-media environmental journalist and speaker focusing on the intersection among science, systems, and people. Previously, she was a Fulbright–National Geographic Digital Storyteller documenting Taiwan’s waste management system, plastics recycling and circular economy initiatives. She is an active contributor to National Geographic's Planet or Plastic? global campaign and creates music videos, info-graphics, and maps to transform people's perceptions of trash from something disposable to something valuable. Lillygol has spoken at UN World Environment Day, Influence Nation Summit DC, and National Geographic on her research. She completed a B.A. in Political Economy from the University of California, Berkeley and was named 5 Under 25: Leaders in U.S.-China Relations.
  • Lara Laadan

    This article is beautifully written. I truly appreciate your craft and how you piece together your stories with such vivid details, allowing all your readers to have ridden along with you in the taxi cab and with you in the conference room. Thank you for also spelling out Chinese words and phrases, as well as including the original form — it’s great to learn and I appreciate you putting in the effort to provide so much knowledge for everyone else!

    The conversation with the taxi cab driver not only struck you, but struck me as well. Sometimes when we read articles from credible sources or see official (government) buildings, we naturally establish this perception that the work is being done. However, we forget that not everything is as it seems. The taxi cab driver provided us with this powerful reminder. Speaking with those who are directly impacted, i.e. the local folks, will really shine light on the truth!

    Thanks again for this wonderful article! I look forward to your next one!

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