On Dec. 31, 2017, China banned the importation of foreign waste. Until then, the United States and Europe quietly shipped a majority of their recyclables – plastic waste, mixed paper, metals, even cardboard – to China’s interior, where small local factories sorted, melted, and resold them as base materials to other companies. But no longer.

The result of China’s National Sword Policy has been a sharp and steep decline in the value and price of recyclables, leaving U.S. recycling centers reeling.

States like California, which once exported more than 60 percent of their recyclables to China, now face an expensive dual burden of adhering to strict domestic waste management laws and international recycling quality standards stricter than those of China. Many U.S. municipalities with small budgets are questioning whether the business of recycling is even worth it. Some are even considering cutting their recycling programs entirely.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

The world's waste used to go to Chinese dump sites such as this area near Taihu Lake, Suzhou.

With no stable domestic market for the purchase and reuse of recyclables in the U.S., the material is now being stockpiled in warehouses. But this time-tethered solution is limited by storage space and strict health-hazard policies, leading most waste collection companies to make the difficult decision to dump recyclables in landfills – a cheap fix for a troubled industry facing price volatility and fallout from their biggest buyer.

Beyond the immediate consequences, this recycling quagmire demonstrates the limits and challenges of operating within the current global economic system. Described by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as the “take-make-dispose” model, this linear industrial process follows an A-to-B pattern, where resources are taken, products are made, and then disposed. New objects are created from virgin material and the system perpetuates, driven largely by an equation that maximizes profit and minimizes cost.

Recognizing the limits of earth’s capacity, the finite amount of natural resources, the immediate threat of climate change, and the ineluctable plateau of growth, one big question remains: Where do we go from here, and who will lead us into the future?

The answers might be found in Taiwan.

Known to the world for its high recycling rate, bubble milk tea, and the hardware behind iPhones, Taiwan is now experimenting with circular economy (循環經濟), humanity’s potential saving grace.


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

Taiwan has become a leader in recycling and waste reduction.

Taiwan: Circular economy pioneer

Often misperceived as “just recycling,” circular economy (CE) is both an idea and system focused on maximizing the effectiveness of resources and minimizing waste. From extraction to design, consumption to post-consumption, resources are used “to their fullest potential, follow their natural life cycles, and produce no waste,” says Martin Su, Taiwan Coordinator for 350.org, a global grassroots climate organization.

While multiple schools of thought exist, CE attempts to reflect natural biological processes and incorporate health, environmental and economic matters in its design. “Cradle-to-cradle,” birthchild of German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough, is the most famous of CE philosophies. It distinguishes two categories: technical cycles, which recover and restore materials, and biological cycles, where food and bio-based materials are designed to go back into the environment after use via composting and anaerobic digestion.

To transform theory into practice, circular product design is key. “When we try to design a product, before we produce it, it should be evaluated throughout the life stage of the product to make sure that no energy or material is wasted throughout its life cycle,” explains Dasdy Lin (林佳蓓), Sustainability Consultant at Taiwan’s Plastics Industry Development Center, a government-supported plastics think tank.

Glass, which can be recycled infinitely without losing quality, is ideal for CE design. Taiwan leads as the world’s second best glass recycler (trailing Sweden), and its largest glass recycling company, Spring Pool Glass, boasts a recycling rate of 100,000 metric tons per year.

Directed by Wu Ting-an, a 2018-19 Eisenhower Innovation Fellow, Spring Pool Glass began as a family business in an industry notorious for small profit margins. Now, it is an eminent example of a successful circular business model, thanks in part to the development of recycled glass products, including art pieces and insulation blocks.


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

A worker at the Spring Pool Glass Tourism Factory in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

Under Taiwan’s 4-in-1 Recycling Program, Spring Pool contracts with public and private entities (both commercial enterprises and individual collectors) to obtain industrial and household glass and recycle them into new forms.


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

Workers recycling glass at the Spring Pool Glass Tourism Factory in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

Recycled glass art sparkles in a mountain scene at the Taoyuan Airport and in the public showroom of their Green Tourism Factory, where visitors can get an inside look at their recycling process on the factory floor. Men and women expertly wield scalding hot glass orbs from furnaces onto mechanical carousels, where they are spun at extraordinary speeds to produce flawless crystal-clear pot covers and drinking glasses – products bound straight for the Japanese market.

For T.A., recycling is “just a process, not the end result.” To demonstrate the power of circularity as a problem-solving tool, Spring Pool turned to the issue of environmental waste. According to government data, 6,000 tons of waste liquid crystal display (LCD) generated by the island’s high-tech industry is discarded each year. The company recycles LCD, transforming screens of old cell phones and high-res televisions into lightweight, sound and fireproof insultation blocks for use in the construction industry.

But it doesn’t stop there. Taiwan is home to Asia’s first electronics waste (e-waste) recycling facility, E&E Recycling, one of now 11 e-waste recycling facilities on the island. Founded by the heads of Panasonic, TECO, and Hitachi, the government subsidy-supported factory collects refrigerators, air conditioners, IT equipment, and televisions from residents.


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

Taiwanese workers on an electronic waste recycling assembly line.

Workers in yellow hard hats and pastel green shirts then sledge hammers and operate machinery to break down the large home appliances, capturing resources like precious metals in silicon boards, while removing toxins like hydrofluorocarbons. Recovered resources are sold to contracted companies in a closed loop system. “Waste is just a misallocated resource,” says William Sui, E&E factory supervisor.


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E&E factory supervisor William Sui.

E&E’s model is representative of a “reverse cycle,” one of the four CE building blocks, where materials are collected, separated or sorted, and treated post-use. Materials are then put back into industrial production stream in an effective end-of-life sorting process, meeting the ultimate goal for circular economy: preventing waste.

The concept is also supported by the island’s leaders, including President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Circular economy is part of her 5+2 innovative industries initiative, a national development strategy aimed at revitalizing the Taiwanese economy while supporting environmental sustainability.

Speaking at the opening ceremony for the Circular Economy & Energy Exhibition in Taipei this September, President Tsai noted that the “time is ripe for businesses at home and abroad to invest in the country and capitalize on its economic and industrial transformation.”

Even before circular economy reached the pinnacle of the policy world, several Taiwanese groups were already involved in end-of-life sorting processes.

Tzu Chi (慈濟), a Taiwan-based Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation, is locally known for its recycling efforts. Leagues of elderly volunteers, stationed at local neighborhood facilities, collect donated goods from residents, who opt to give their old bikes and recyclables to the group instead of dumping them in the public waste stream.

Volunteers then sort through them, placing scooter helmets here, newspapers there, and then begin the recycling process: sitting in small groups with their friends, they snip white edges from scrap music sheets, pull polyester film from old cassette tapes, break down metal from discarded toys.


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

A Tzu Chi volunteer sorts through plastic bags.

Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

Volunteers at Tzu Chi's recycling center.

Each item, stripped to its most basic components, is separated into a different stack – plastics are sorted by type (#1 - #7), with P.E.T. bottles getting extra treatment because of their high recycling value. The #1 soda and water bottles are sorted by color (clear and non-clear), separated from plastic caps and adjoining plastic rings, and then melted down into high-value polyester fibers.

Da Ai (大愛), the entrepreneurial engineering arm of Tzu Chi Foundation, then weaves these fibers into t-shirts, solar-powered visors and backpacks, shoes, and suitcases. Items on display in their Neihu showroom each feature a serialized tag, which links to an app listing the number of bottles recovered and the amount of energy spent during production. Most famous are the 100 percent recycled polyester blankets, made for disaster-relief missions to aid victims like those affected by Hurricane Harvey.


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

Tzu Chi produces 100 percent recycled polyester disaster relief blankets.

Then, there are shining examples in the private sector. Da Fon Environment Technology Co. Ltd. (大豐環保科技股份有限公司), a waste reduction and recycling company, focuses on upcycling and in their own words “turn waste into gold.” Recyclables collected from 35 site locations, including a storefront in New Taipei City, are granulated, washed, and either shipped as raw material to other companies or transformed by the R&D team into hand-held calendars, tote bags, and even urinals.

They even have their own Zero-to-Zero app, which connects people looking to get rid of their recyclables with the company for immediate pick-up. A point system linked to the number of items (and times) they recycle is used in both their storefront and app – once they reach a certain level, participants can trade-in points for household items, like bamboo toothbrushes and government-mandated garbage bags.

Miniwiz, an engineering firm founded and led by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Arthur Huang, takes waste and designs high-end products. Plastic bottle caps are transformed into colorful building blocks, leftover rice husk into stackable office dividers, plastic water bottles into architectural feats. Consumer goods, furniture, transportation: the list goes on.

Challenges lie ahead

For all its progress, however, practitioners and scholars still believe Taiwan’s greatest challenge to achieving circular economy is the lack of a systemized, department-wide policy and a clear definition for all stakeholders of what CE actually is. “The problem with circular economy is the infighting between KMT (Kuomintang) and DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the weak cooperative relationships between corporations and government,” says former Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Chang Juu-en (張祖恩), now Environmental Engineering Professor at National Cheng Kung University. It “is the largest challenge Taiwan is facing when speaking of waste management.”

Concerns from small and medium-sized business owners, who are integrated in and reliant on global export supply chains the linear model supports, don’t see the tangible benefits of making the switch to CE. “It is uneconomic for Taiwan to enforce circular economy,” explains a PLA plastics factory owner from Miaoli County. “First, the market is weak, and the volume of production is insufficient. If Taiwan enforces circular economy, it has no advantage to compete with others in price cutting-throat competition.”

A lot of confusion comes from not knowing what exactly CE is. “So far, there’s no good branding for it,” says T.A. Wu, Director of Spring Pool Glass. “We need to get better at branding the concept of circular economy, so more and more people know what it is.”


Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat

A Tzu Chi volunteer smiles as she takes a break from sorting plastic waste.

While Taiwan struggles to apply circular economy in practice, the U.S. is barely discussing it. Waste management companies, however, may be the first to visit the idea as their businesses continue to be impacted by the China ban. A call for an industry re-frame is in the air, with some waste company leaders seeing waste collection as the “first step in the supply for a manufacturing environment” instead of dumping ground for obsolete and valueless material.

At the end of day, circular economy has the potential to transform Taiwan and distinguish it as a model for Asia. For now, it is a socio-economic experiment many entrepreneurs, policy leaders, and volunteers are willing to engage in. Some see circular economy as Taiwan’s route to self-sufficiency. Others perceive it is as a solution to Taiwan’s identity crisis with resource recycling becoming the next new thing Taiwan is known for. But we’ll just have to wait and see.

Read Next: Not Always Evil: An Alternative View on Why We Use Plastic

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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