From “Garbage Island” to a Model of Recycling

Taiwan has one of the highest rates of recycling in the world, as well as public programs designed to reduce waste.

The Taiwanese have learned the value of “Reduce” and “Reuse” in dealing with the trash households produce. 

Each night at a designated time in Taipei neighborhoods, a bright yellow garbage truck makes an appearance, its arrival signaled by a sound system playing a familiar tune such as Beethoven’s Für Elise. Trailing close behind are one or two smaller trucks devoted to collecting recyclables and organic waste.

Nearby residents scurry down from their apartments to deliver their trash to the garbage collectors. According to Taiwan law, kitchen scraps must be separated from recyclables. Both must be separated from ordinary garbage, and ordinary garbage must be placed in certified plastic bags. Otherwise, you could be fined as much as NT$6,000 (about US$200).

Given Taiwan’s relatively small size and dense population, it is hardly surprising that the nation has become a world leader in recycling. In fact, encouraged by the central and local governments, environmental awareness influences behavior even before the recycling stage. The amount of household trash produced in Taiwan is also among the lowest in the world per capita.

Last year, this figure stood at 1.13 kilograms per person, says Liu Jui-hsiang, deputy director general of the Department of Waste Management at the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). That compares to 2.04 kilograms for the U.S., 1.75 kilograms for Germany, and 1.54 kilograms for Australia. Only a few countries, including neighboring Korea at 1.06 and Japan at 0.93 kilograms, produce less trash per person.

Taiwan’s output of trash has declined over the over the past two decades, even as the economy has expanded. Although the 1.13 kilograms per person in 2018 represents an increase over the 0.84 kilograms in 2015 and 0.87 kilograms in 2016, the difference may be due to a change in how waste is classified by the government. Harvey Houng, a board director at the EPA’s Institute of Environmental Resources, notes that in January 2017 the central government reclassified personal waste generated by employees in industrial parks as municipal rather than industrial waste, complicating annual comparisons.

Of all the garbage created by households in 2018, 42.68% was incinerated, a level considered to be quite low by international standards, notes Houng. Over half – 56.41% – was recycled. Noncombustible waste sent to the nation’s 67 landfills amounted to 0.91% of 2018’s trash.

Trash-collection and recycling trucks come by each neighborhood in the evenings to help keep the urban environment clean. Photo: CNA

Liu of the EPA says it is difficult to compare Taiwan’s recycling rates with other countries as they all use different standards. But a major study conducted by the OECD in 2015 found that Taiwan – at 55% – had one of the highest recycling rates in the world. While Germany stood at a whopping 66%, the rate for the U.S. was 35% and Israel had one of the lowest figures at 20%.

Overall, an average of 0.49 kilograms of trash per person was incinerated daily last year. Houng notes that this number is down from 1.14 kilograms per person in 1998, a huge 60% reduction.

How did this happen? In the 1980s, as Taiwan democratized, the “not in my backyard” syndrome made it hard to set aside more sites for landfills. Similar public resistance stymied government plans in the early 1990s to build as many as three dozen large incineration plants The local and central governments felt pressured to explore and implement recycling measures as alternative options.

One milestone was the “4-in-1 Recycling Program” created through amendments to the Waste Management Disposal Act in 1997. That made Taiwan one of the first countries in the world to introduce the concept of “extended producer responsibility.” In brief, it’s a strategy to ensure that producers or manufacturers are liable for the environmental costs associated with a product throughout the product’s lifespan.

The “4-in-1 Recycling Program,” which integrated the island’s communities, recycling facilities, and government agencies into a recycling network, involved establishment of a fund using fees levied on manufacturers and importers.

The fund, managed by the EPA’s Recycling Fund Management Board, subsidizes the collection of recyclable materials and their processing by licensed enterprises. Houng cites the example of an old refrigerator dumped in a remote area. It might cost NT$200 to move it and another NT$200 to break it down into spare parts that might ultimately sell for only NT$300. From the fund, the EPA will subsidize the company with another NT$300 to match the resale price, enabling it to earn a profit and providing the incentive for it to remain in business.

The fund is used only to subsidize the resale of marginally profitable secondhand items and scrap, Houng explains. There is no need to subsidize the sale of discarded goods with a high resale value, he adds.

Currently the government has designated 33 items in 13 categories as eligible for subsidies if resold by licensed companies. They include aluminum and glass containers, and discarded automobiles, motorcycles, televisions, light bulbs, and laptops. Manufacturers and importers of the 33 items – along with the creators of their packaging and containers, plus the producers of certain raw materials – are all required to register with the EPA and pay the required recycling fees into the fund.

For their part, Taiwanese consumers are required to make sure that any of the 33 items that are in their trash are given separately to the truck that collects recyclables. In addition, the EPA requires local environmental bureaus to collect certain items – including waste paper, cell phones, and chargers – for recycling, although they are not eligible for subsidies.

Another milestone occurred in 2006, when the sorting of household garbage into three different categories – organic waste, recyclables, and ordinary rubbish – became mandatory nationwide. Fines for placing discarded recyclables into the regular rubbish truck or not properly sorting garbage range from NT$1,200 to NT$6,000. The organic scraps collected by the trucks are eventually processed into compost or pig feed.

 Heightened awareness

Partly because of a compulsory environmental-education program introduced in 2011, Taiwanese consumers are considered to have become highly conscious of waste and tend to purchase only what they need. Houng, who worked in the U.S. for 17 years at the University of Houston and the Texas Department of Health, says few countries have enacted laws to ensure that this kind of education is mandatory.

The Environmental Education Act of 2011 requires all high school students, as well as employees of government institutions, state-run enterprises, and statutory bodies that receive more than 50% of their funding from the government, to attend at least four hours of environmental education courses. “Even the president herself has to go through a few hours of environmental education,” Houng notes.

Other measures have been adopted to encourage people to avoid using disposable items. For example, Houng says, disposable cups may not be used in public schools and government offices. 

In Taipei and New Taipei City, a system created by the central government is in use, requiring that garbage be disposed of in designated color-coded plastic bags. The bags are available from convenience stores, with prices varying according to size. A large rubbish bag in Taipei costs NT$5. 

Liu says that charging a fee for the bags is aimed both at providing a disincentive to create trash and enforcing a “polluter-pays system.” The system encourages recycling, as recyclables can be placed in any kind of plastic bag for free. 

Taiwan’s stellar record for recycling shows how far it has come from the 1990s, when some media reports referred to Taiwan as “Garbage Island.” At that time, piles of trash often accumulated on street corners in the cities and marred the beauty of the countryside.

In the 1980s, waste treatment initially focused on burying rubbish in landfills. But limited land space for landfill sites led to makeshift trash dumps near residential areas, prompting public protests. In the early 1990s, the government responded with plans to build a string of 36 incinerators. Those plans not only brought protests from environmentalists and people living near the designated sites, but also turned out to be over-ambitious.

“At the beginning, after calculating the amount of waste generated in Taiwan, we thought 36 was the number we needed,” says Houng. “So we started building the incinerators. At the same time, we also launched programs to reduce the amount of waste we generate.”

The waste-reduction programs turned out to be so successful that in the end only 26 incinerators were actually constructed. Later two of them – in Yunlin and Taitung Counties – were mothballed, leaving just 24 still in use. Even then, notes Houng, there is insufficient municipal waste for the 24 incinerators to burn. The excess capacity is used to help industries burn their non-hazardous combustible waste.

Each incinerator has a core electrical generator powered by burning the trash, “so we recover energy from the waste,” Houng says. The garbage designated for incineration is already relatively dry, as it contains no organic waste. It is then ignited in a burner maintained at around 800 degrees Celsius. The heat is used to generate steam, which is then used to run a turbine to generate electricity.

The electric power is sometimes used for purposes other than incinerator operations. At the Neihu Refuse Incineration Plant, for example, the electricity generated also heats a public swimming pool. 

The Yunlin and Taitung incinerators were shut down due to complaints from nearby residents, although the current system of transporting their waste to neighboring counties is less energy efficient.

Some observers are critical of the system of generating electricity from the incinerators. Robin Winkler, founder of the environmental group Wild at Heart Taiwan, says it may give Taiwanese a false impression that if they create and burn more trash, they are producing more “green energy.”

Remnants from the bottom ash in the incinerators are often recycled into road construction materials. According to the EPA website, after magnetic separation and screening, ferrous and non-ferrous metals can be salvaged from this ash. Processed bottom ash can also be mixed with asphalt, replacing bricks and other materials. The EPA has been actively promoting the use of processed incinerator bottom ash products in public construction projects. However, some environmentalists such as Winkler express concern that dangerous toxins from the bottom ash remain in their materials, posing an environmental risk.

In 2007, the government enacted a law preventing untreated waste from being placed in a landfill site. Precious little space is left in Taiwan for landfills, says Houng, and they are used for incinerator ash that can’t be recycled.