Meet the Man at the Nexus of Taipei City’s Environmental Movement

I met Martin at a taco shop in one of Taipei City’s downtown side alleys. My experience with Mexican food in Beijing didn’t bring back fond memories, but this place looked legit. The counter was filled with steel tins of freshly chopped meat and the guacamole looked green (in Beijing it was a strange murky yellow color).

Martin had just finished curating the last salon of Future Perfect, a public exhibit showcasing green products from up-and-coming Taiwanese entrepreneurs. “We want to show the public that there are other possibilities, other ways to live,” he shared with me over a chicken burrito and a basket of freshly fried chips. “The hope is that Taiwanese can re-imagine the way we live using Taiwanese products from Taiwanese entrepreneurs– that this green, zero-waste way of life can be the norm.” 

Everyone I’d spoken to up until that point had mentioned Martin’s name in one way or another. “You should contact Martin.” “Martin organized this.” “Martin would know more about this.” As someone who had just parachuted into the world of environmentalism and waste management in Taiwan, I was looking for any leads, and he seemed like the go-to guy.

Upon first impression, Martin is a well-educated 28-year old with short black hair and a strong build. (Apparently, he used to be a break-dancer.) He spent 10 years of his life in a Pennsylvania boarding school, graduated from University of Washington, Seattle, studied abroad in Norway, and returned to Taiwan with two degrees in International Studies and Communications.

“In college, I learned that you need to make environmentalism a norm,” he said. “If you use a metal straw in the same way you say “excuse me” after bumping into someone, then that’s it. It’s all about infusing these small things into your daily habits and mannerisms, so that you don’t even need to think about it. It just is. 

I practice environmentalism because I want to create a norm for myself. If I can’t even convince myself, how can I convince others?”

Subtle Style

We sat at a small table sandwiched between the bathroom, a makeshift bar, and a group of young professionals celebrating the end of the work day.

What struck me immediately was his subtlety, the way he carried himself with a friendly yet thoughtful demeanor.

“There’s the human self and then the animal self,” he described, “We humans are animals, but animals only think about what they’re going to eat today, not what’s going to happen seven generations from now. We [as environmentalists] are trying to do something that’s not normal,” he said with a laugh. “People who aren’t driven by instinct are the ones trying to solve the problem.”

Contrary to the belief that environmentalists are radical eco-loving hippies, Martin couldn’t have appeared more normal. You could have easily passed him on the street and not realize that he was the one responsible for connecting all the Taipei-based green entrepreneurs, leading a movement to push the government and corporations to divest from fossil fuel industries, and coordinating most, if not all, of the city’s green, reuse, recycle events and discussionsBut that’s his style. He just does things.

“When I was in high school in the U.S., I noticed that the school didn’t have a recycling program. Everything was thrown in the same bin. I was really shocked. Growing up in Taiwan, sorting and recycling was something we did everyday; it’s a mandatory part of our education system.

“Something about it just didn’t feel right. So I ran for student government to investigate the situation. The administrators didn’t really take me seriously and shut down my hope of changing the system.

“But I didn’t give up. I tried again my senior year when the school had a new president, and with his support, I was able to introduce a recycling system at the school. The thing was, I knew I was going to graduate soon, so I realized that any change I wanted to make had to be sustainable; it couldn’t die when I graduated. The change had to last without me.

“That’s when I realized:

People will die, but systems and laws will stay in place.

“It got me thinking about the current systems in place– the inertia, this sense of outward resistance, to wanting to make anything new or different or better.

“If I want to change anything, I need to fight the system in place and build a new one. That’s what we’re trying to do here in Taiwan, with REnato Lab, with these exhibits and events– we’re building a community of people from all sectors, advocating for a different way of life, and creating something that can make Taiwan a completely sustainable place.”

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Death, Fear & Drive

I grabbed a chip. “That all makes sense,” I said nodding, “but I can’t help but be a little curious. Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

“I’m afraid of death,” he answered without pause. “I have this fear that one day, the existence of humanity will perish from this earth, while the earth lives on. ” He glanced at me to see if I had a strange or surprised look on my face. I didn’t. He continued.

“When I was about three or four years old, the thought of dying struck me.” He looked down and chuckled. “I think I was learning about how the dinosaurs died and how all the plants died, when I suddenly realized that one day, I too will die,” he said, as his eyebrows furrowed together. “I too will completely disappear.”

“That night I couldn’t go to sleep. I cried and I cried until my mom came into my room and soothed me back to bed. I’m 28 now, and a lot of things have changed since then, but what remains is the fear. 

It is this fear that gives me the strength to fight.

“What are you fighting for?” I asked, “Or rather, what are you fighting against?”

“I guess it’s the fight for a Future Perfect, right?” He nodded in the direction of the exhibit we’d both just come from.  “I’m fighting for the day when Taiwan can be self-sustainable, driven by a circular system where Taiwanese entrepreneurs create products whose life-cycles don’t just end at the point they’re used, but are reused in a circular, zero-waste manner. A system where resources are used to their fullest potential and no waste is produced because everything runs in loops. My hope is that once Taiwan achieves this, it will be a beacon of circular practices to share with the world.”

He was referencing the circular economy model, a new theory that takes into consideration environmental, health and social benefits within an economic model that maximizes resources throughout their life cycles. The model reflects nature’s circular cycles, where no resource is wasted, and material flows are managed in a way where they can be continuously reused.


The Choice

“Right now, the system is designed so that people move to areas where opportunities are abundant—that’s capitalism. But it leaves dead zones where there are little resources and people have little to no power.

“I could have followed suit, done the same thing. After I graduated college, I worked with an American recycling company until I needed to renew my work visa. I could have stayed in the United States if I really wanted to—I had options. Companies were willing to sponsor my work visa, no problem. But instead, I chose to come back to Taiwan.

“It’s not just because it’s my home. I would have done the same anywhere, if I had come from any country—to me, it’s my way to fight against the system and build something new using my own strength.  

We, as taiwanese, need to find our own solutions.

“I remember talking to an Ukrainian girl while I was studying abroad in Norway. She was commenting on the large number of young, talented, educated Eastern Europeans who leave their countries and stay in Western Europe where there is more opportunity. She looked me dead in the eye and said that the choice of those kids to leave and not return home led to a brain drain in their countries.

“I felt like she was testing me, asking me, “So what are you going to do?” Of course, she didn’t explicitly say that to me, and I didn’t really think much about it at the time, until a few years later during the Sunflower Movement.

“I was stationed in city hall doing office work as a part of my substitute military service. I had a two-hour break between 6-8 pm before I had to be back on base, so I ate dinner quickly and headed to the Legislative Assembly, just to listen.

“I was there when the student protest broke out against a controversial Cross-Straits trade bill that had moved to the Legislative floor for a vote without an extensive “line-by-line” review process. This was a tricky bill because some viewed it as giving mainland China too much sway and control over the Taiwanese economy.

“When the news broke, I checked my Facebook feed and noticed that my friends were divided into two groups: one were the ‘outsiders,’ the ones who chose to stay outside of Taiwan to work, who were now using the internet to comment on the action; and the other were the ‘locals’ who were in Taiwan actually protesting this policy. I asked myself, which one was I?

“Those experiences helped me understand that I needed to stay here and lend this place my strength in order to make a difference at “home.”

Ultimately, if you don’t do anything, your future is in the hands of others. Instead, I want to help shape that future, a future of sustainability, circularity, and connectivity.

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The Man Under the Helmet

I looked at the half eaten burrito on his place. With all my questioning, I really hadn’t let him eat. He picked up on the cue and took a bite. But he seemed as determined to share his narrative as I was to listen to it.

“Funny thing is, I’m aware that I’m a byproduct of the system. I acknowledge my privilege. Not many people have the means to send their children to study abroad for such a long period of time to invest in their education and future. I recognize that, and I know that as a result of that privilege, I have the luxury to make choices.

“So, I’ve taken advantage of this opportunity to make choices that allow me to live out my values. It starts with the little things– riding my bike to and from work, using a bamboo toothbrush, eating one vegetarian meal per day.” He lifted up his burrito, “I had my veggie meal for lunch, so I’m good.” He smiled and took another bite.

“What did you learn from your parents?” I asked him. “You’re clearly very self-driven, but did they influence you in any way?”

Martin paused and thought for a moment. “There were two main things my mom taught me- one I internalized and one I don’t really believe. The first: “I must enjoy my own solitude.” I spent a lot of time on my own when I was in boarding school, so I had to get used to being by myself. This lesson I learned really quickly.

“The second thing my mom used to say to me all the time when I was young was that “people who try hard may not be successful, but people who are successful try hard.”

“I used to believe this, but the older I become, the more I see, and the more I realize how it’s not true. There are a lot of people out there who are ‘successful,’ but who don’t work hard. The opposite is true as well. There are people who try hard, but aren’t successful. All I now know is that this shouldn’t be the model we judge people by.

I learned what we see on the surface isn’t always the truth. That “bad guys” can appear normal and good.

“Aren’t you afraid that you’ll make enemies in this line of work?” I asked. “I mean, taking on the fossil fuel industry, the banks, promoting a zero-waste lifestyle that almost seems at odds with the linear make-take-dispose model we have today– aren’t you scared?”

Martin Su’s form of transportation? His Giant DS321 bike. And in case you’re wondering, I asked– it doesn’t have a name.

He laughed and shook his head, “Are you kidding me? I’m too little for people to notice. If you’re hunted in real life, it means you’re doing something to make a difference.”

Martin finished his burrito, and we walked out of the restaurant together. I stood and waited while he strapped on his helmet to prepare for the 9 kilometer ride back home.

“You know,” he said as he kicked back his kick stand, “you just made me think about something.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, as I raised the camera to take one last shot of him.

“What is nature?” he asked with a smile on his face, gripping the bike’s handle bars. “If you consider beavers and their ability to build structures that alter the river’s flow and transform the environment as “nature,” then aren’t the things that humans create “nature” as well?” He chuckled. “Just a thought.”

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Martin Su is currently the Project Manager for REnato Lab, Project Manager for 350 Taiwan, Co-Host of Green Drinks Taipei, and a Global Shaper from the Taipei hub.

More information on REnato Lab “FUTURE PERFECT” exhibit:

 

 

 

 

Changing Planet, Human Journey

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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.