EPA must observe its duty to protect the environment

The China Post news staff

It would be nice if everyone could contribute some effort to boost the economy, but it would be wrong if everyone gave priority to the economy and ignored one’s duty. The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) seems to forget what its top priority should be when it proposed a law that could allow imports of toxic scrap metals, including those materials from printed circuit boards and computers. The EPA’s rationale is that such a policy could boost Taiwan’s economic competitiveness and help improve the island’s recycling business. But isn’t its main duty to protect the environment? Government operations can be distorted if everyone involved serves only one single purpose. In some countries, governments may exist to serve religion. In others they may serve military ambitions. In Taiwan, a sagging economy and desperate attempts to seek a new direction for industries have seen the government giving top priority to economic growth. All government operations seem to be focused on this one goal. So the EPA, apparently also feeling the pressure, is talking about helping Taiwan’s business competitiveness rather than protecting its environment. What will come next? Perhaps the Ministry of Health and Welfare can turn its focus to promoting medical tourism instead of safeguarding the nation’s health. Or perhaps the Ministry of Education can start placing emphasis on attracting more foreign and Chinese students rather than on improving the academic performance of local schools and the education of local students. The Ministry of Culture has been talking about building up Taiwan’s “cultural creative” industry. But the emphasis has often been on the industry side — namely, how to make money from culture — rather than on culture itself.

Environmentalists opposing the EPA proposal have rightly pointed out that such a change in the law would put a heavy burden on Taiwan’s environment. The technology of recycling may have improved, and a recycling industry may not create as many toxic substances and pollution as feared, but why should Taiwan head for the direction of becoming a major graveyard for the world’s waste? If we are talking about its social and global responsibility as a major producer of such wastes, the answer may be positive. After all, Taiwan-based companies produce most of the world’s computers and many other electronic devices, such as Apple’s iPhones — albeit mostly in mainland China. These devices usually end up in dump sites and landfills in some poor nation at the end of their lives. Perhaps every other country in this world, including Taiwan, should bear part of the responsibility for cleaning up this waste. But the EPA is not talking about social responsibility; it is talking about business. The outcomes from these two mentalities will be very different. If Taiwan focuses on environmental terms, it will take extra caution and invest more to make sure the waste is properly recycled. Cost will still be a concern, but not a major one. But if the focus is on business, the priority will always be on making money. And that will distort the operation. We should learn a lesson from the food scares that we have seen. We may have strict laws and regulations in place that govern food safety, but there are few government resources to enforce them. And there are always rogue businesses that would not hesitate to cheat customers and the government. The EPA must at least ask itself one major question and answer it honestly: does it really have confidence that it can monitor all businesses recycling imported scrap metals? One single rogue cooking oil vendor has created so much trouble. And it would take just one rogue recycling firm to create an irreparable disaster to the environment.