Five nights a week across Taipei, the opening bars of Beethoven’s Für Elise signal the start of a modern tradition. Roused by the music booming from garbage trucks as they rattle along the bustling streets, residents rush to the curb clutching bags of pre-sorted trash — blue for garbage, white for recyclables. Aboard the trucks, workers separate recyclables into designated bins (plastic, paper, glass, metal, and so on). Raw food goes to the compost bin; cooked food will be reused as pig feed.
This impressively choreographed dance has become second-nature in the capital city of 2.7 million. But 30 years ago, it would have been unthinkable. In the ’80s and ’90s, Taiwan had one of the world’s worst urban waste problems. Its landfills overflowed and mountains of rubbish clogged street corners, earning it the unflattering moniker “Garbage Island.”
Fed up with the accumulation of waste, people across the country demanded action. They burned trash in the streets and rallied at dumping sites. Over the next two decades, the government overhauled the waste management infrastructure of the island from root to branch, investing in waste trucks and recycling plants and switching from landfills to incineration. New regulations compelled companies and consumers to share the physical and financial burden of recycling and garbage collection, establishing personal accountability and incentivizing people to produce less waste in the first place.
Yen-Chi Chang, 26, who grew up along the east coast of Taiwan and now works in marketing, was born just as the tides of trash were beginning to turn.
“When my parents were in school, no one paid attention to the importance of recycling,” said Chang. “[Now], we are told from an early age that we must recycle.”
Today, Taiwan’s 55% recycling rate is among the highest the world, up from virtually zero three decades ago. For comparison, the U.S. recycling rate is 34.7% and the European Union’s is 46%. The average Taiwanese person produces 850 grams (1.9 pounds) of waste daily, down from 1.2 kilograms (2.6 pounds) 15 years ago. In the U.S., the average was 4.4 pounds per person per day in 2013. This year, Taiwan committed to banning all single-use plastics — including bags, disposable cups, utensils and straws — by 2030.
As activists and policymakers urgently seek solutions to stem the global tide of waste, Taiwan’s recycling revolution demonstrates the vital role of an organized civil society in forcing governments to prioritize responsible waste management. Moreover, it’s a lesson in how wealth and urbanization can contribute to waste, but also help reduce it.
In the decades leading up to the 1980s, while Taiwan was governed under martial law by the Chinese National Party, the country experienced a period of rapid economic growth and urbanization dubbed the “Taiwan Miracle.” Between 1951 and 1984, annual gross domestic product rose by an average of 6.1% a year, compared to 3.6% in the U.S. over roughly the same period. As the nation grew richer, its consumption rose — along with its waste output.
The traditional system of waste collection and disposal, which relied on informal networks of waste-pickers who collected and transported discarded materials by hand, buckled under the flow of trash from Taiwan’s burgeoning cities.
“The landfills were overflowing. You could see that waste was not recycled or sorted,” said Yen-Ning, a policy analyst for Greenpeace Taiwan.
People burned trash in the streets in protest. Grassroots NGOs and individual advocates waged what the press dubbed a “trash war” to pressure the government to reform the country’s waste management system.
In 1987, when martial law ended and the government lifted restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, a group of housewives from around Taiwan formed the Homemakers United Foundation. They quickly became a powerful force in the fight to clean up Taiwan.
“They would visit landfills in different cities and they would also check the rivers to see if there was any illegal dumping. They made a practical survey of what was going on and took the results back to the Environmental Protection Administration and asked for real change,” said Yen. “It was really impressive.”
The Homemakers also went into classrooms and spoke directly to members of their communities, extolling the benefits of reusing and recycling and encouraging less wasteful practices.
“We made the soap out of recycled frying oil, and organic cockroach poison out of onions,” said Frances Shyu, the group’s former committee chief, at the foundation’s 20th anniversary in 2007. “We wanted to inform the public that it is easy to recycle and conserve.”
The group’s involvement in the community would prove archetypal for nationwide educational campaigns the government later rolled out to teach people about recycling. Environmental curricula in schools now teach elementary students which types of plastic can be recycled into what new products. The EPA has produced posters, films and a subscription periodical about recycling and hosts a toll-free recycling help hotline. Subway riders can turn in plastic bottles for credit on their public transport passes. The efforts gave citizens an ingrained sense of personal responsibility, explained Grayson Shor, a circular economy consultant to the American Institute in Taiwan.
“I think it is vital that local environmental NGOs played a role in the process,” said Yen, referring to the ripple effects of the Homemakers’ work that can still be seen today.
Homemakers United and other homegrown activist groups also helped to catalyze the policy reforms that would transform Taiwan’s waste management apparatus.
The first of these reforms came in 1988 when the government introduced the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility. This required certain manufacturers to pay for the disposal of products after consumers were finished using them. Producers of plastic bottles, electronics and cars began to set up joint recycling projects to organize the removal and recycling of waste.
But the landfills kept getting fuller, and public outrage continued to grow.
“At this time, NIMBY-ism [not in my back yard] was on the rise. Each county had a landfill, and when this would get full, it would shift the trash to another county. It was like a vicious cycle that did not solve the problem,” said Chang.
Discontent reached a fever pitch in 1990, when residents of one neighborhood in Kaohsiung, a huge port city on the southern coast, staged a protest against the city’s dumping at the Hsichingpu landfill after its lease had expired. Demonstrators blockaded the site for 37 days.
The city government quelled the uproar by committing to replace landfills with industrial trash incinerators that would generate electricity, a tactic soon adopted on a national scale. The country opened its first incineration plant in 1991, in Neihu, a district in Taipei. Though incinerators faced opposition from environmentalists and NIMBY activists, the government would go on to open over 30 more around the island. Today, more than 99% of Taiwan’s nonrecyclable waste is incinerated, according to the EPA. Incinerators are held to strict emissions standards.
While building incinerators was an important move away from landfills, the regulatory focus remained on funding recycling and reducing waste. In 1997, building on the extended producer responsibility reforms of the prior decade, the government established the 4-in-1 Recycling Program to coordinate recycling efforts among community residents, municipalities and recycling companies — three of the four pillars referenced in the program’s name. The fourth and central pillar was a new Recycling Fund created to subsidize recycling companies and local recycling collection. The 4-in-1 Program required manufacturers and importers to pay a fee to the EPA, which was then used to finance the fund.
The current annual income of the recycling fund is $5 billion New Taiwan dollars ($160 million), which is plowed back into collection and disposal systems, publicity, technology, management and maintenance. It’s been a huge success.
Yet Herlin Hsieh, general secretary of the sustainability nonprofit Taiwan Watch Institute, pointed out that some producers find ways to avoid paying their fees to the fund. “That results in unfair competition between the compliant and noncompliant producers,” he said, adding, “We are urging the government to address this problem.”
The government has also put the onus on consumers, encouraging residents to produce less waste and pollution by offering financial incentives. In 2001, it introduced a regulation known as Pay As You Throw, requiring residents to pay a fee for garbage collected according to how much they throw out. The tax comes out of the price of the official blue and white garbage and recycling bags every household must use. These cost 2 or 3 New Taiwan dollars each (less than 10 cents) and could take a family of four a day to fill. That same year, the EPA began promoting the separation of food waste — 13 years before California made it mandatory for municipalities to implement organic waste recycling.
The amount of food waste in Taipei has dropped from 2.5 pounds per person daily in 1999 to 0.9 pounds in 2018, according to the EPA. Household waste volume has fallen 66% over the same period.
The success of Taiwan’s trash transformation sets an impressive standard for a world threatening to drown in its own waste. According to the World Bank’s 2016 What a Waste 2.0 report, the world’s cities generate more than 2 billion tons of solid waste annually, with at least 33% of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner.
The report estimates that rapid urbanization, population growth and economic development will lead to a 70% increase in waste over the next 30 years — or 3.4 billion tons generated annually — with most of this coming from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Learning from models like Taiwan’s will be crucial for other countries as they take on the mounting challenge, said Shor, calling the country “a beacon of hope.” Though small, the island nation of 24 million people (less than the population of Texas) is proof that coordinated policies that compel both industries and consumers to take responsibility for what they produce and throw out can reduce waste and make recycling pay for itself.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated $5 billion New Taiwan dollars is equal to $1.6 million in the U.S. The equivalent is $160 million.