What you need to know
A slurry of protests, policies and payments eliminated Taiwan’s waste problems.
Walking around Taipei, one seldom sees trash or even trash cans. Instead you might see people washing plastic bottles, carefully sorting computer parts and families waiting with blue trash bags for the nightly garbage trucks.
This trash transformation is a recent phenomenon. In 1993, Taiwan had a collection rate for trash of just 70 percent. That meant 30 percent of Taiwan’s waste entered the environment either through littering or burning.
Fed up with rampant illegal dumping, people demanded change, with the then Kaohsiung mayor (and now KMT chairman) Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) facing the brunt of the public's ire. In just 20 years Taiwan transitioned from an island on the brink of a waste apocalypse to a global leader in recycling.
Today, much of Southeast Asia and the rest of the economically rising world grapples with similar trash challenges. Indonesia just invested US$1 billion into stemming the flow of plastic pollution into the ocean after being named one of the worst contributors to ocean plastic. The rest of the world fails to stem the tide – they halfheartedly use plastic bag bans, educational programs, and a mix of other programs without addressing the underlying causes. Yet, looking at Taiwan, it’s obvious what drove not only a dramatic increase in recycling but a massive decline in waste production.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Pay As You Throw (PAYT) schemes were introduced, as well as public education. These strategies together decreased waste production from 1.08 kg of waste per person per day in 2001 to 0.86 kg per person per day, almost eliminating the need for landfills. What made this shift possible, and can other countries adopt this model?
In 1993, Taiwan had a collection rate of merely 70 percent; with little information available on recycling at the time, we can assume the actual recycling rate for waste material was much lower. By 2000, Taiwan achieved a recycling rate of 18 percent, yet produced more than two times as much waste as it did in 2016. From the early 90s to the early 2000s, protests, government actions and responses from the public shaped a waste management policy largely focused around reduction and recycling.
Why did Taiwan have a trash problem? Researchers and development institutions have found that GDP growth and increased consumerism correlate with trash production. The dark side of prosperity is waste. As incomes rise, populations grow due to healthcare gains, people move to cities, and garbage proliferates.
Infrastructure takes time and political will, something difficult to arrange during economic booms. Looking at the countries that contribute most to plastic pollution (India, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia), we see a common trend of rapid economic success and rising populations. Eventually, people demand more than just dollars.
Residents in Taiwan protested industrial landfills or other waste dumping sites for years, but the trash conversation reached national attention in 1990 with the Hsichingpu Landfill (西青埔垃圾掩埋場) demonstration. The Kaohsiung City government continued to use the landfill even though the lease had expired; residents responded with a 37-day blockade of the landfill site. The city government ended the protest by promising to build modern waste incinerators. These incinerators would not come online in time, causing further backlash and protest.
By 1996, due to excessive waste generation, frequent protests and blockages, Taiwan was running out of landfills; nearly two thirds of landfill of Taiwan’s landfills were approaching capacity or already full. In the face of such an overwhelming problem, the newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed building incinerators instead of landfills to reduce conflicts and waste.
Waste incinerators were met with their own fierce protest. The EPA planned to build 36 new incinerators across Taiwan, but ended up only building 19. With high upfront costs and a five-year build time, slightly longer than an election cycle, well organized community groups could easily stall projects. It wasn’t hard to convince the public burning garbage next to your home would impact your health.
Since the public opposed landfills and incinerators, the government had few choices. Finally, after almost a decade of waste protests, the legislature passed a new recycling and waste reduction scheme.
In 1998 the Legislative Yuan amended the Waste Disposal Act to include and prioritize recycling and waste reduction while also introducing an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme. An amendment in 2001 gave the EPA the authority to audit and certify products and operations under the scheme. Across the world, academics, governments, NGOs and even industry acknowledge the critical role EPR plays in reducing waste. The schemes require manufacturers or importers to pay a small fee for creating or importing products; this fee then goes into a fund managed by the government to develop waste management infrastructure or recycling industries.
Taiwan’s EPA manages the Recycling Fund Management Board (RFMB). The executive secretary divides responsibilities based on waste type across five sections, with a sixth section for general affairs and management. The fund started by dealing with aluminum plastic or paper containers before moving on to more complicated products like batteries, fluorescent lights, motor vehicles and finally information technology equipment.
Through this expanding product coverage, the fund collects NT$7 billion (US$240 million) per year from the EPR scheme. This fund develops new recycling projects, for example developing industries and processes for recycling truck components. A portion of the fund also goes to educational projects to inform citizens how to recycle and to encourage them to recycle less common objects like lightbulbs, appliances and computers. Most countries with successful recycling rates or programs and have some type of EPR to manage their waste — simply look across the European Union and the UK. This, combined with legislation that bans certain types of waste from the landfills, incentivizes industry to create products that are easily recycled and reduces waste at the production level.
While recycling can divert a portion of the waste from landfills, the total volume must come down as well. EPR thus draws down waste in two ways – by forcing industry to pay into a fund to resolve the waste and to incentivize manufacturers to create easy-to-recycle products. Ease of recycling matters doubly when you can recycle for free but have to pay for your waste.
Pay as you throw
Charging for waste disposal, typically called a “pay as you throw” scheme (PAYT) reduces total waste output by citizens and industry by creating a financial penalty for producing garbage. In 1991, Taipei City experimented with waste fees by charging residents for water, assuming that if residents used more water they also created more waste. Failing to reduce waste, Taipei decided to start charging for waste by volume in 2000.
When the program first launched, clever citizens tried to dispose of their waste in public trash cans. This resulted in fines, removal of public trash cans and educational programs to discourage this practice. Shortly after launching the program, residents complained that they had to dispose of too much food waste, raising the costs substantially. The city quickly responded with a food waste composting system in 2003 that allowed residents to freely dispose of organic waste. This policy came six years before San Francisco’s food waste composting law, yet few outside of Taiwan know of this achievement.
Since the launch of PAYT, per capita waste generation in Taipei fell 31 percent in 15 years from 1.26 kg per person per day in 1997 to 0.87 kg in 2015.
Since the launch of PAYT, per capita waste generation in Taipei fell 31 percent in 15 years from 1.26 kg per person per day in 1997 to 0.87 kg in 2015. The financial penalty drove recycling, increasing recycling rates from 2 percent to 57 percent. While Taipei adopted the scheme first, a similar trend was seen across Taiwan. Taipei city boasts the highest recycling rate in Taiwan of 56 percent thanks to the PAYT and EPR schemes.
Today, Taiwan incinerates less than it did in 2000, despite a peak in 2007. In fact, many incinerators around the island operate well below capacity. Landfill use, which once almost threatened to take over the island, decreased 98 percent. Today, Taiwan produces more recyclable waste than unusable waste and makes consistent progress towards a “zero waste society.” Imagine if other cities learned from Taipei’s success.
Lessons from the incinerator
Before one gets too excited, remember that reality seldom operates as cleanly as it appears in government reports. Taiwan Watch Institute claims that the EPA inflates the amount of recycling by not including electronic waste or waste from private contractors. They also noted a gap of 1 million tons of waste claimed for incineration.
This type of sobering criticism drives better waste policy. If it wasn’t for the courage of communities, especially the Homemakers United group, Taiwan would not have any recycling today. However, it’s important to keep this achievement in context.
Sweden made headlines when it announced it recycled 99 percent of its waste. Yet in reality it only diverts that amount from landfill, incinerating nearly 50 percent of its garbage and recycling only 33 percent.
Across the world, countries scramble to find new recycling options as China restricts waste imports. The EU, for example, exports half of its sorted plastics, with 85 percent going to China. These examples highlight the complications of waste reporting and statistics and to place Taiwan’s achievements in context.
Further, while Taiwan has its challenges, at least the island has its own recycling supply chain and can truly process much of the waste it creates.
Taken together the lesson remains clear, charging for waste disposal and developing an EPR scheme drives down waste production, builds infrastructure and increases recycling. Importantly, Taiwan wasn’t as wealthy as Japan or any European country when it began this waste scheme, but it did end up building a multi-billion-dollar recycling industry while cleaning it’s streets.
Mysteriously, political commentators, NGOs and academics remain confused about what to do next. They claim that countries need time to develop and earn more money or that EPR limits industry. Looking at Taiwan, or even Japan and South Korea the answer is obvious – EPR and PAYT together fix trash problems without unmanageable costs and spur innovation.
From trash on the streets to a booming recycling industry, serious progress was made over a very fast period. With plastic production ever increasing and GDP growth clearly correlated with waste production, new rising economies will begin to drown in waste. While GDP correlates with waste production, it doesn’t correlate with recycling. Developing a circular economy is a question of will, not means.
Taiwan shows us that when faced with rising waste any country can still develop a successful waste management policy.
The world looks to the Netherlands, Germany, and the rest of the EU to learn recycling, yet these countries had decades to improve. Wouldn’t the Philippines, Indonesia or Vietnam have more to learn from Taipei than Berlin?
Editor: Morley J Weston