Convenience stores are one of the last places you would expect to embrace zero waste, but 7-Eleven in Taiwan has just done precisely that. It has issued an announcement saying it will phase out all single-use plastics by 2050 and will hit that ambitious target by reducing usage by 10% every year. It is the first convenience chain in Asia to make such a promise.

This is a major victory for anti-plastic campaigners who have been advocating for such a shift for nearly two years. Using a public petition with 210,000 signatures, Greenpeace East Asia’s Taipei office has applied pressure to 7-Eleven, as well as to other convenience store chains, urging them to rethink how they package and sell goods. 

A press release says, “A 2020 investigation by Greenpeace East Asia and Taiwan National Cheng Kung University Department of Environmental Engineering found that 7-Eleven stores in Taipei City and Kaohsiung produced 15,000 tons of plastic waste a year, with at least 30% of the waste sent to incinerators.”1

The promise to ditch single-use plastics in the long term has not come without preliminary market research. Over the past year, 7-Eleven has apparently run trials using reusable cups in four stores and reusable delivery package return stations in 18 stores. It has stopped offering plastic straws. Another major convenience chain, Family Mart, has trialed selling cooked meals in reusable containers, as well as beverage cup rentals, and has plans to expand.

It is interesting to hear that a convenience store, of all things, is shifting toward reducing single-use plastics. After all, so much of the problem with single-use plastics has developed precisely because of the convenience that these stores represent. They cater to people’s needs (and desires) to have a broad range of goods instantaneously and on the go. 

Indeed, we’ve long argued on Treehugger that the most effective way to fight much of this superfluous packaging is to change the culture surrounding it. We need to slow down, stop, and sit to eat and drink, rather than doing it on the move. Many of the things we buy could be made at home and carried in reusable containers. More of us need to drink coffee like Italians

7-Eleven’s current business model is the antithesis of what we’ve always argued for, but it will be interesting to see what it manages to achieve. In a dense urban location like Taipei, there’s greater potential for a reusables return system to work effectively because, as Greenpeace East Asia’s press release reads, “it’s difficult to walk through Taipei for 10 minutes without spotting the convenience store’s iconic orange, green and red-striped signage and shelves stocked with delicious teas and snacks.” That makes it convenient for people to return whatever cups and containers they’ve picked up at other locations.

There’s always the risk that 7-Eleven will go the route that the infamous plastic-free grocery aisle in Amsterdam did—swapping out all fossil fuel-based plastics for bio-based ones, which aren’t any better. But plastic campaigner Suzanne Lo says they’ll be looking out for that: “We look to see solutions that are based in reuse and reduction, rather than substitution of plastics with other single-use materials.”

2050 is in the very distant future. It’s difficult to imagine businesses making promises in 1991 that would still be applicable to life in 2021, but progress must start somewhere.

Lo hopes the 10%-per-year rate will accelerate: “7-Eleven’s announcement shows that retailers can take bold action to cut down on plastic waste, including beverage containers, food packaging, and delivery waste. However, 2050 is a long way off, and the timeline must be sped up. Moreover, while we are proud that the plastic-free initiative started in Taiwan, it needs to be scaled up to all 7-Eleven stores globally.”

You hear that, North America? It’s your turn next! The more businesses hopping on the no-single-use-plastic train, the faster change will happen.

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