Taiwan: From ‘Garbage Island’ to Recycling Machine

“Developing an effective waste management policy is a question of will, and not only wealth.” –  Ming-Chien Su, Professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan

“Developing an effective waste management policy is a question of will, and not only wealth.” – Ming-Chien Su, Professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan

It’s 5:30pm on a weekday and most people have just returned home from work. Suddenly, Beethoven’s iconic tune Fur Elise echoes throughout the neighborhood, signaling the arrival of the yellow garbage trucks. Sure enough, many people are already emerging from their apartments with bulging blue bags, and obediently getting in line. Before long, volunteers and officials are stepping down from the truck and helping everyone sort their trash properly.

Welcome to Taiwan, a country with a unique trash-collection process that has almost become a community ritual, accounting for its high recycling rate of 55% as of 2016 – one of the highest in the world. This is especially impressive considering that when the island first experienced soaring consumption and living standards 25 years ago, mountains of trash lined the streets while open spaces turned into toxic waste dumps, thus earning it the name ‘Garbage Island.’ In fact, Taiwan’s trash collection rate in 1993 was a mere 70%, with virtually no recycling at all. By comparison, the United States, a nation with a history of recycling dating back to the 1960s, achieved an abysmal recycling rate of 34.6% in 2016.

Only after continued protests and blockades by angry residents did the Taiwanese government finally pass a new waste management framework in 2001 that includes the ‘4-in-1 Recycling Program’, connecting community residents, recycling industries, local governments, and the newly established Recycling Fund. Through the program, both citizens and manufacturers are incentivized to reduce trash and encourage more recycling. For instance, general trash must be disposed of in specific ‘blue bags’ which must be purchased, and increase in cost as the size increases while recyclables like glass, aluminium, paper and plastics can be placed in any bag. While it may seem inconvenient to have to take your trash out every day, the practice actually increases the policy’s effectiveness, as it eradicates the ‘common of the tragedies’ problem: those caught trying to get rid of their trash improperly risk being publicly shamed and receiving a fine.  

Alternatively, for those who are not home when the trucks make their daily scheduled rounds, smart recycling booths have been added around the city of Taipei that add value to one’s mass transit access card for every recyclable bottle or can, thus simultaneously encouraging use of public transport as opposed to driving. It also has the added benefit of incentivizing people to hold on to their empty bottles and cans instead of dumping them in the nearest trash can in sight.

Due to lack of space in Taiwan for new landfill sites, 96% of collected trash is now treated by incineration, though a reduction in overall waste has also led to the ‘powering off’ of one of Taipei’s 3 incinerators every month. On the other hand, collected recyclables are sent to facilities for sorting and then to more than 1600 recycling companies such as Miniwiz that bring in US$2 billion in annual revenues, by turning them into building materials, furniture and more. Far from being a burden on the nation, the recycling industry is quickly becoming one of the biggest contributors to the nation’s GDP, thus serving as a leading example of an effective trash management system to countries grappling with their own garbage challenges such as the United States.