Combat Rancid Oil, But Avoid Damaging the Environment
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
January 7, 2015
Executive Summary: The EPA waste cooking oil recycling program just went into effect on New Years day. But it has already run into problems. Food industry tycoon Kao Chi-ming of the Yi Mei company criticized the government's certification process for the recycling industry. He said its attempt to prevent the recycling of rancid cooking oil could encourage vendors to dump the oil into ditches, thereby polluting the environment. If government control of cooking oil recycling destroys the environment, the trade-off becomes deeply worrisome.
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The EPA waste cooking oil recycling program just went into effect on New Years day. But it has already run into problems. Food industry tycoon Kao Chi-ming of the Yi Mei company criticized the government's certification process for the recycling industry. He said its attempt to prevent the recycling of rancid cooking oil could encourage vendors to dump the oil into ditches, thereby polluting the environment. If government control of cooking oil recycling destroys the environment, the trade-off becomes deeply worrisome.
Kao Chi-ming is hardly an alarmist. Restaurants and snack bars can be found everywhere on Taiwan. Conservative estimates put the amount of waste cooking oil produced annually at 70 to 80 thousand tons. The EPA registers less than 7,000 tons of recycled waste oil. That means that over 90% of the oil is unaccounted for. The EPA assumes that as long as it controls the source, and all recyclers are registered, the problem is solved. It assumes they can be tracked, the flow of oil can be controlled, and the recycling of rancid oil into cooking oil can be prevented. That is why it issues work permits and adopts a QR Code for auditing. These are all examples of a “Maginot mentality”.
But "source management" of waste cooking oil on Taiwan is no easy matter. The reality is grim. The sources are too many and too scattered. Every night market stall operator and hole in the wall shop creates waste oil. The government may try to manage the recycling industry. But it will find it impossible to cover all the market stalls. Moreover, even before the rancid oil scandal erupted, mechanisms for oil recovery already existed in the market place. Rancid cooking oil was sold to the "little bee" recycling industry or donated to pig farmers. Such recycling takes place regardless of what the price is or where the oil goes. In fact, it indirectly helps the community maintain a clean and healthy environment. Therefore it makes sense to recycle resources. One cannot repudiate this issue in one fell swoop.
To prevent rancid oil from getting back into the cooking oil market, the government must increase oversight over recyclers. But if increased government oversight leads to a breakdown in the waste oil recycling network, stall owners will indiscriminately dump waste oil in the sewers. This could lead to serious consequences. It could breed mosquitoes and cockroaches, impact neighborhood health, block drains, impede drainage, cause flooding. The discharge of rancid oil into the rivers and eventually the sea, could lead to the death of fish, plants, and animals. If it results in environmental disaster, the results would be unthinkable.
The job of the EPA is to protect the environment, to protect it against destruction. If the EPA's waste cooking oil recycling policies result in the destruction and deterioration of the environment, that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. That would be shooting oneself in one's foot. There are three reasons for such decision-making blind spots. One. Administration officials are too close to the problem. They are bent on solving the recycled cooking oil problem, and have taken their eyes off the ball. Two. Bureaucratic inertia. Their heads are filled with thoughts about "official authority" and "management." They hope to master and control industry. But they have forgotten the need to go with the flow. Three. Linear thinking. They want to push a button and solve all problems in the most expedient manner possible. They lack any understanding of society and its complexity, of the need to unravel problems one by one, using different means in different cases.
In order to prevent vendors from cavalierly dumping waste oil, Kao Chi-ming's advice is for the government to set the price of oil high enough to ensure its recovery, then turn it into fuel. The extra cost can be made up with government subsidies. This is a much more feasible solution. Pricing oil high enough would prevent the oil from flowing every which way. It would encourage industry to actively recycle. Should China Petroleum fill this role? That can be discussed. Private sector firms more experienced in biodiesel production might be more suited to the task. That might be better than piling too many responsibilities onto China Petroleum. Government and industry should communicate with each other in order to find the best solution.
Allowing businesses to dump their oil in ditches would lead to environmental disaster. It would leave a mess that the government would have to spend even more money to clean up later. It would be better to use subsidies to turn that oil into a community resource. On balance, the latter clearly has lower social costs. Moreover, the situation is different in cities and counties all over Taiwan. Central government “one size fits all” solutions to the problem of waste oil recycling fails to consider differences in local conditions. It also lacks a phased implementation plan. It is difficult to be optimistic about the outcome. The EPA should practice source management. But it should also consult with the petroleum and refining industries. It should work with them to solve the problem of downstream oil problems.
Dayu tamed the waters. He allowed them to flow. He dredged nine rivers, allowing the flood waters to reach the sea. The EPA by contrast, has attempted to tame the rancid oil crisis by blocking it. It has adopted a "Maginot mentality." It has imposed strict controls on the recycling industry, and heavy fines on vendors and restaurants. The effectiveness of these measures is dubious. Worse still, it could damage to the environment. Can we afford not to take precautions?
2015-01-07 聯合報 社論