September 4, 2017. Taipei.
12 hours over the Pacific, and I felt invincible. “This is it,” I told myself, pushing three pieces of black luggage (one small, one medium, and one super large) over cracked concrete slabs to Greenworld Hostel, the first of 15 different locations I would come in time to call home. “This—this is what I’ve been waiting for.” Months of preparation led me right here—this tiny spot outside a 7-Eleven—to begin a nine-month adventure as a Fulbright researcher and National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow.
A tan camera bag and beat-up black satchel crisscrossed my shoulders, balancing the two things my life (and my work) depended on. I paused for a moment, straightening my back to look at the bright city lights and wipe the sweat off my forehead. I imagined what the people walking past me saw—a young woman with a ridiculously wide smile, two large sweaters wrapped around her waist, an awestruck expression glued to her face. “Wow,” I whispered softly. This was where I wanted to be.
One month prior, I was standing shoeless on a matted surface, staring at a computer screen and answering emails. The standard eight to nine office hours passed, and I left each day, my energy depleted, feeling as though I had done nothing for the world. My spirit craved the opportunity to be outside, on the front lines, exploring, learning, and sharing things with others.
The grant was my way out. On paper, I proposed documenting Taiwan’s waste management system and recycling innovations. But really, the research was linked to my decade-long love affair with the island’s most famous export—bubble milk tea. Growing up in San Diego, I discovered the magic of Taiwanese tea houses early on, replacing any sort of allegiance to Starbucks with a large iced milk tea (no boba, half-sugar).
But it wasn’t until I graduated from college that a seemingly innocuous question popped into my head: after I throw away my milk tea, where does it go? In that moment, I turned to the trash bin standing silently at the teahouse entrance, noticing, quite obviously, that the mound of used plastic cups and colorful plastic straws from the previous night was no longer there.
It suddenly dawned on me. The ocean. Marine wildlife. Landfill. Pollution. Billions of people. Consumerism. The hundreds of other silent trash cans, filled one day, emptied the next. I, as a VIP milk tea consumer, was complicit in an enormous out-of-sight, out-of-mind process—for every milk tea I enjoyed, I unconsciously harmed the environment. I needed to do something, so I came to Taiwan hoping to make a difference.
Dreams of following trash trucks, tracking the bubble milk tea plastics supply chain, and exploring the tension between the island’s plastics industry and homegrown environmentalism flashed through my mind. But that was all ahead of me.
My mother insisted that I bring three (four, if you include my backpack, five if you include my camera) bags. It was my first time living abroad in a place with distinct seasons. San Diego was always sunny; a constant halo of 75 degrees Fahrenheit didn’t prepare me for Taipei’s heat and humidity or cold rain. Vitamins, rain boots, suits, and camera reels lay side-by-side inside strained zippers. I didn’t know what to expect, so I reluctantly brought everything.
My snowboarding backpack—double strapped to protect my lower back—smelled of sweat and body odor. I didn’t bother washing it. Taipei’s notorious humidity, which always left a noticeable moustache imprint on my upper lip, invariably brought the smell right back. Only Anastasia and Snowball, my two travel companions, were unaffected—their little heads poked out from the backpack’s turquoise zipper, smiling at anyone who spotted the smiling alpaca and rotund winter bird. 他們罩我 (Tamen zhao wo). I liked to joke that they had my back.
I had nine months to conduct research and create digital stories on what I learned—little time for a researcher, even littler time for an artist. I was driven by a slew of questions: where does trash go? Why is plastic everywhere? What do people think about waste? What really is recycling? With few connections and a meek folder of English-language articles on Taiwan and trash, I began a deep dive into the waste world.
My first month was a whirlwind of paperwork and winding alleyways as I struggled to build a new life in a foreign land. I got the essentials: a Taiwanese phone number, an apartment, an Alien Resident Card, an EasyCard MRT subway pass. I found a Taipei City map (thank you MRT!) and used it to navigate subway stops, major arteries, and bustling neighborhoods. I walked everywhere, took few taxis (usually just to practice Mandarin with the cab driver), and discovered the incredible convenience of registering for a U-bike (a shared bike rental service with stations all over the city).
Then came the actual research. I walked straight into government bureaus and corporate offices to talk with people working on waste and green-tech issues. I stumbled my way through conversations with random strangers in restaurants who brought their own Tupperware and utensils and memorized how to ask every milk tea barista, “Can you please put my milk tea in my reusable cup? I don’t need a discount. I want to protect the environment. Thank you.” (These were the first new phrases I learned in Mandarin.)
When speaking to Taiwanese people, I didn’t allow let English to escape my mouth, though awkward silences increased rapidly in number as I missed words or key phrases. (Nodding my head and faking my way through conversations with “對dui,” “mmm”, and “是shi” only took me so far.) I figured that if I traveled all this way to learn about their systems, processes, and perspectives, the least I could do was listen to them in Mandarin—a sort of meeting-halfway approach since my knowledge of Taiwanese was zero and my Mandarin had a four-month stint of study abroad training at Peking University.
To supplement my knowledge and improve my skills, I started one-on-one Mandarin classes in a private institution near Guting MRT station, rotating teachers every few days to work on grammar, environmental vocabulary, and basic conversation starters to make things flow (and to make people laugh). (I got a lot of props for saying: “只要你有心就可以的!” Where there’s a will, there’s a way!) Constantly humbled by the limits of my own abilities, I attempted to discover my voice in Chinese. But fear, especially during the first five months, replaced any semblance of confidence, especially when I tried to order cold matcha lattes (second only to milk tea in my personal ranking).
Soon enough, however, word swept around town that there was a foreigner interested in learning more about Taiwan’s waste management system. (The island can be really small or really large depending on how you navigate its social circles.)
Out of the blue, I received a call from a Taiwanese gentleman inviting me to the International Forum on Food Waste Management (I never found out how he got my phone number). AIT (American Institute in Taiwan) leveraged their connections to get me a seat at the Circular Economy Conference hosted by the International Environment Partnership and an entry ticket into National Geographic Taiwan’s Anniversary celebration. Cold emails to senior researchers at Taiwan’s leading think tank resulted in warm discussions (and free samples) of recycled products and green companies.
Strangers became friends, and soon I was a regular at events within environmental sustainability circles in Taipei, Taichung, and Tainan. My social life picked up speed when I stumbled upon the break-dancing and house dance scenes and started regularly practicing with Taiwanese dancers in their studios, outdoor pavilions, underground train stations, tiny music clubs, and universities. 賽莉莉 (Sai Li Li) became a familiar name among young Taiwanese seeped in urban dance culture—dance competitions and parties drew crowds who wanted to share energy and battle the foreign girl with the crazy curly hair.
Few English words can accurately describe the experience. 豐富(fengfu), meaning rich, is my preferred Chinese word. The experience was kaleidoscopic, tinged with surprises and colored in complexities, and beautiful, not just in the way nature blended in and out of the urban jungle or in the cacophonous vibrance of street markets and lighted alleyways, but in the slow development of meaningful relationships.
I was a storyteller, interviewer, researcher, friend, mentor, teacher. But most importantly, I was a listener, taking a back seat in conversations with café owners, recyclers, trash-sorters, dancers, officers, entrepreneurs, activists, students, artists, engineers, elders. With great passion, and sometimes even a little shyness, people spoke at length about their ideas, feelings, and frustrations. They were vocal and willing to share, and I was quiet and willing to listen.
And yet, not all experiences were positive, marked by the glory of adventure and the excitement of discovery. Racked with challenges, seared with insecurity, marred by loneliness, and struck by silence were merely some of the difficulties I faced as I walked this path on my own, a young Iranian-American girl shouldering the responsibility of two great brands—Fulbright and National Geographic—on an island with the mission to discover and document the truth.
At one point, I questioned whether I’d ever get good enough at Mandarin to not sound like an idiot. On another occasion, I misread the address of a site visit and ended up four hours late to a meeting because the actual location was three train rides and two cities away.
But the hardest part of my experience was determining what the truth was. Trash (and recycling), I came to find, were contentious issues marred by a lack of trust in the government, previous poor waste infrastructure, and a history of illegal dumping. Seeking answers, I toured municipal incinerators and Buddhist recycling facilities, visited small factories pumping out PLA and PET cups, sushi-holding containers, and modems, befriended elderly women in neighborhood alleys and apartment stairwells making a living off recycling.
I heard opposing opinions, and constantly asked myself whose voice I hadn’t yet heard and what sight I hadn’t yet seen. On the one hand, government employees were hard at work tracking recycling numbers, contracting with eco-approved businesses for recycling separation and distribution, funding small waste-to-art projects, and managing volunteer programs where residents traded recyclables for soap, salt, trash bags, or baby diapers. Officials like Minister Lee Ying-yuan hoped to convince the public that what they were doing to balance the needs of the economy and the environment was helping the island move in the right direction.
On the other hand, numerous cab drivers, university students, and fellow hikers I met on the top of mountain trails questioned the legitimacy of the waste system, pointed to continuing pollution issues, and believed that most people only wanted to a live a life of convenience, at the expense of the environment.
(Another group of people, whom I dub the “everyday eco-heroes,” realized the seriousness of the plastic pollution problem and took it up themselves to transform the food & beverage industry, product design and packaging standards, and environmental education climate by starting their own businesses or working for environmentally-focused nonprofits. I profile them later.)
I wanted a firm grasp of the behemoth in front of me before writing anything. Sharing a story with the National Geographic and Fulbright brands was powerful—my words had the potential to inform and influence a reader’s perspective on Taiwan from halfway across the world or inaccurately represent the history, debate, and context here. I had a moral and ethical obligation to get it right.
I also quickly learned the power of name-dropping. Doors opened when I shared my National Geographic affiliation, but those same doors came with a flood of unprecedented expectations, desire, and fear. Some people thought they’d become National Geographic media stars because I’d ask them a question; others didn’t know what to make of me and saw me as competition in a media frenzy of foreign journalists.
I had to adapt my strategy in every interaction, listen and balance opposing viewpoints, respectfully navigate a different culture, and build a network of reliable sources. Each time, within minutes of a meeting a plastics engineer, green-design CEO, factory boss, or government employee, I had to establish a positive relationship, build good rapport, ask questions and navigate conversations in Mandarin, and take National Geographic-quality footage of the site visit. (Did I mention my Chinese name, 賽莉莉Sai LiLi, sounds like “poop lily” in Taiwanese?) It wasn’t easy.
Introducing myself, for instance, was more challenging than I thought. According to the U.S. State Department press release, my official title was “Fulbright – National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow.” A mouthful in English, and I initially had no idea how to translate it.
I first tried using “Fulbright – National Geographic Storyteller,” but most people outside of academia (i.e. most the people I spoke with) gave me a confused look at the term “Fulbright” and zeroed in on the “National Geographic” (國家地理). The iconic yellow-rectangle brand widened eyes with surprise (do you work for the TV Channel, they often asked?), raised eyebrows in admiration (one young woman spent twenty minutes squealing at me as National Geographic’s biggest fan), and got me access to government officials.
Then came translating the word “storyteller.” Was it “說書,” meaning “to tell a story” or “記者”, meaning “journalist?” I wasn’t a journalist, per se—I was a digital storyteller writing on the National Geographic blog, who also took photos, drew maps, created music videos, and designed info-graphics. A researcher with full creative freedom.
“Blog” (博客) wasn’t professional enough, and I needed a Chinese-approved naming convention to bestow legitimacy upon my often-spontaneous arrival in government offices. Accurate information was key to creating objective and authentic material, as the goal was to educate people on the issue of waste and recycling.
I eventually settled on the title, National Geographic Environmental Protection Journalist (國家地理環保記者), and when I handed over my business card, which proudly wore the Fulbright logo (NG’s signature yellow frame wasn’t allowed due to copyright issues), I mentioned that I was participating in a special research program in collaboration between National Geographic and the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright program. A mouthful, still, but it ultimately got the message across, and with it, access.
Unlike a typical Fulbright research grant, where foreign scholars partner up with Taiwanese counterparts at local universities, I was on my own. The professor who supported my project was busy with his own work, and I didn’t wish to impose on anyone. Instead, I followed stories wherever they took me, extensively traveling the island with my backpack (Anastasia and Snowball included) and a little luck, visiting electronics waste factories, plastic straw assembly plants, glass recycling showrooms, zero-waste cafes, eco-mobility conferences, and aboriginal mountain tribes.
Untethered to a university and guided by a moral compass and a strong desire to learn, I made my way through the next nine months, putting together monthly presentations in local schools, running social media environmental education contests, creating Zero-Plastic Waste YouTube video series, and leaving nightly sweat marks on the cold stone slabs outside the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall.
It was a trying, testing experience, one that brought the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I failed more times than I can count, embarrassed myself some more, and slowly realized I was allergic to lard. But in the end, I left with a deep sense of gratitude for living my dream at the age of 26. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.
Few people know what happens to their trash once it’s thrown away. In Taipei City, classical music fills the streets to indicate the arrival of nightly trash trucks. People leap out of their homes or wait on designated street corners to dump their trash into the crunching mouth of the yellow machine, throw their compost into orange compost bins, or hand recycling to the tailing open-bed recycling truck. The city follows a “Pay-As-You-Throw” scheme, where citizens must purchase designated blue bags to place their trash in; recycling is free.
In my research, I spoke to men and women contributing to the island’s zero-waste transformation. Here’s some of what they wish to share:
1. “Plastic is not evil, it’s just being used in the wrong way,” said Dasdy Lin, Plastics Industry Development Center (PIDC), government-supported plastics think tank.
“It’s such a valuable material that can be recycled several times [though the quality decreases each time it is recycled], but it’s usually used one-time, like for utensils, and that’s really a waste of value in plastic point of view. So, in order to use plastic in the right way, you first design a product to make it easy to recycle and that uses only one kind of plastic, so in the end when you put it in the recycling bin, it can be re-collected and used again.”
2. “There is inertia in the existing system,” said Tammy Turner, leading permaculturist and educator in Taiwan. “Inertia is a characteristic of habit, things we do without thinking, that we do over and over again, that become a force in and of itself. You have to ask yourself, at what point do you intervene? I’ve always believed in the bottom-up—that’s the only real way to make a change. Recycling is only a transitional phase from a permaculture point of view.”
“Having a better relationship with the environment is just about understanding it,” she continued. “You know how society is by knowing the earth, hence the characters for society, 社會” (社 (she)meaning “god of the soil or land” and 會(hui) meaning “to assemble, a meeting”].
3. “I want to show people that there are other possibilities, other ways to live. These are Taiwanese products made by Taiwanese companies for Taiwanese people to help them reimagine the way they can live.” - Martin Su, mastermind behind the Future Perfect Zero-Waste Product Exhibition and Director at 350.org, Taiwan.
Martin is at the nexus of the environmental movement in Taipei. In the Future Perfect Exhibition, he brought green entrepreneurs together for the first time to foster dialogue and build community. His vision is “for people to see these things [zero-waste, green products] as the norm,” and for them to know that the product is made responsibly, both environmentally and labor-wise.
“Most people are operating on instinct. They want to eat today; they don’t care what happens seven generations from now. Environmentalists operate against instinct in this way—they care about preserving and protecting the future, not just about what they need right now.”
4. “You cannot simply “green” an existing supply chain to make it more environmentally-friendly,” shared Owen Yuan, Service Manager, Taiwan Green Packaging Design Association (TPDA台灣包裝設計協會). “You have to build a new one, completely from scratch.” This means disrupting already established relationships and the people who rely on these relationships to make a living, thereby jeopardizing someone’s livelihood and the income stream they rely on to support their children’s education. So, stopping the production of plastic products isn’t as easy, clean-cut, or black-and-white as it may seem.
But he believed that “the times are changing,” and younger CEOs and executives are making it a point to focus on the environmental impact by shifting to more green suppliers. The island is slowly making its way to embracing circular economy and take global leadership in post-consumption waste management.
5. "I sort trash Monday through Friday, 7:00 am to 5:30 pm for an environmental protection company,” (上和環保公司) shared Mr. Chen, a 60-year old man who works full-time at National Tainan University. He’s an example of an everyday eco-hero, someone working on the front lines of waste management. “We manage the university’s waste, so all the students and staff bring their trash here, and we separate them into paper, plastic, compost."
He rummaged through a large dumpster, pulling apart pink plastic bags and sorting their contents, then gestured to the scattered crates around him. Sure enough, soiled McDonald's paper cartons and plastic soda bottles lay in organized heaps around his feet. A series of green nets hung from the wall, filled with recyclables already sorted and ready for the end-of-day pick-up.
"I’ve done this for 7 years," he continued, using both hands to pull a plastic straw from the lid of a milk tea cup. "Why? For 3 reasons: (1) Because it’s good for the earth. (2) Because it’s good for my work. And (3) Because it’s good for me.
“Some people think this is dirty, low-class work. But I work every day knowing that what I’m doing is protecting the environment and allowing me to make a living. It’s the right thing to do."
In the end, Taiwan is an island racked with tension as much as it is by typhoons. It is a place bursting with life and spirituality, deep love and dark trauma, resilience and recognition. Someone once told me that the island’s diversity in topography, climate, plant and animal life, reflects the diversity of its people. I couldn’t agree more.