Taiwan Takes Trash Talking to New Levels

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They say necessity is the mother of invention, and in Taiwan’s case, necessity has given birth to an often-overlooked but hugely consequential environmental endeavor: waste management, a rather fancy term for finding ways to trash your trash.

And the problem for Taiwan is that it’s simply running out of room for its garbage.

Unlike its political archrival China, which encompasses some 3.7 million square miles, the island of Taiwan (which Beijing claims as a breakaway province) measures about 14,000 square miles, two-thirds of which is mountainous terrain.

Nevertheless, Taiwan is home to 23 million people and ranks among the most congested places on Earth. It has also rapidly industrialized into a major international economic hub, generating 3 billion in gross domestic product last year and a per-capita GDP of ,790.

But all that development has also generated a whole lot of waste — in fact, Taiwan churns out some 2,100 million tons of garbage each year. And with landfills no longer a reasonable option, the island is coming up with creative ways to dispose of all that waste — whether it’s through incineration or recycling or other methods. In fact, the government is encouraging its citizens to rethink the entire concept of trash, taking Asian ingenuity and perseverance to new levels in an ambitious effort to become one of the world’s first “zero-waste” societies.

And although it may not sound as glamorous as, say, the global fight against climate change, waste management is an integral component of environmental stewardship as nations all over the world try to figure out what to do with the unseemly byproduct of global prosperity.

So the Washington Diplomat traveled to Taiwan this past spring to see firsthand how the island is trying to clean up its act in a region notorious for environmental degradation, as booming populations perpetually outstrip natural resources.

Picking Up the Pieces

Of course, Taiwan is by no means an exception to Asia’s dubious ecological record. In its crowded urban centers, air quality is poor, the bulk of rivers are contaminated, and the streets are choked with motorcycles and cars (Taiwan has one of the highest automobile densities in the world). But at least the streets are no longer choked by something else: rotting garbage.

That’s because in the late 1990s, with landfills filling up, the government began a major trash turnaround from the ground up, enlisting the help of ordinary citizens to build an elaborate, almost military-like waste management system that links garbage disposal with civic duty.

Today, these sanitation soldiers can be seen on any given weekday among the teeming alleyways and storefronts in the capital of Taipei, patiently waiting to heave their trash bags onto garbage trucks that play music to let residents know they’re coming — a strange yet efficient communal ritual that almost resembles American children waiting for the Good Humor ice cream truck. And if you can’t make the trash appointment yourself, you’re responsible for hiring someone to do the job for you, much like dog walkers here in the United States.

That’s just for the perishable stuff. For recyclables, residents must adhere to a strict pickup regimen, only tossing out certain items on certain evenings, with “freelance” recyclers available to pick things up the odd night out.

In addition, residents must meticulously separate the plastic wrapping from plastic bottles, for instance, and organize everything into at least four different recycling bins — glasses/cans, plastic, paper, trash and occasionally food scraps. There are also per-bag collection fees to minimize consumption, mandatory and voluntary trash sorting, city-approved bags at convenience stores and extra charges for plastic bags at supermarkets.

It’s a dirty job but in Taiwan everyone has a hand in it, which has not only boosted civic pride but also produced tangible results: According to the island’s Environmental Protection Administration, Taiwan’s recycling rate has increased from 9.8 percent in 2000 to 38.7 percent in 2007, surpassing rates in countries like Germany, Canada and the United States. In addition, waste produced per-capita has been slashed by half — from 1.14 kilograms in 1997 to .58 kilograms last year.

One Man’s Trash… In fact, the notion of recycling has become so ingrained in the Taiwanese psyche that in the suburbs of Yung-mei — 26 miles from Taipei — the biggest tourist attraction isn’t an art museum or an architectural wonder or an ancient Buddhist shrine for that matter. It’s an innovative plant that recycles everyday appliances that in most other countries would end up in landfills.

More than 10,000 people have taken the factory tour of E&E Recycling since it began operations in January 2000. The unusual facility — which sprawls across 4,000 square meters — is somewhat of a shrine to the island’s near-obsession with recycling.

“Over the years, Taiwan’s living standards have improved greatly, but the amount of household and industrial waste has also increased,” explained E&E’s general manager, William Sui. “The home appliance waste that our company is specialized in recycling is large, difficult to decompose and sometimes contains toxic materials.”

The plant — born out of a 1997 law that requires home appliance waste to be recycled — is the first of its kind in Asia. It employs 150 people and is jointly owned by a dozen investors, including some of the biggest names in manufacturing: Matsushita, Proton, Hitachi, Sampo, Sharp, Sony and Sanyo.

“So far, we have recycled over 2.3 million items, including refrigerators, air conditioners, computers, washing machines and TV sets,” Sui said proudly as he led a group of foreign journalists — all wearing yellow hard-hats — around the gleaming facility. “When we started operations, it would take 15 minutes to recycle one piece,” he noted. “Now it takes 10 minutes from beginning to end.”

E&E is a shining example of the government’s efforts to foster a “cradle to grave” mentality when it comes to waste — which as one official put it, “is nothing more than material being misplaced.”

“Recycling should be a part of people’s everyday life,” said Winston Dang, Taiwan’s former environmental minister who often calls himself an “over-educated garbage man.” “One should feel a sense of discomfort — even guilt — when he or she fails to recycle stuff.”

Garbage in Your Golden Years But it’s more than guilt that motivates people — it’s a genuine sense of community and civic pride that was abundantly evident during a stopover in Tainan City, where foreign journalists were greeted by a brigade of several dozen elderly volunteers donning crisp red uniforms.

The men and women were part of the Feng Huang Li community, a group of retirees who convert kitchen waste — i.e. food scraps like orange peels and lettuce leaves — into natural compost, proudly producing what they call “good-smelling” fertilizer using their own bio-fermentation formula. The ever-expanding program was started last year under the guidance of Jennifer Chang, director-general of the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

Chang’s enthusiasm is infectious as she recruits citizens — young and old — to contribute to local initiatives from anti-smoking campaigns to the restoration of a traditional Japanese home in the heart of the city.

Chang enjoys the full backing of Tainan’s environmentally conscious mayor, Tain-Tsair Hsu, who implemented the world’s first “no idling” citywide policy on both large and small vehicles. Starting January, all drivers in Tainan had to turn off their engines if their cars idled for more than three minutes or they would be slapped with fines ranging from to .

“The most important thing for a mayor to do is environmental protection,” Hsu told The Washington Diplomat, explaining that the real challenge is persuading people to “understand, cooperate and volunteer,” rather than forcing their participation. To that end, the mayor introduced competitions and local lotteries to motivate citizens to clean up local parks and other inventive green incentives.

Adding Water to the Flames That type of creative thinking also applies to the other major component of Taiwan’s waste disposal arsenal — its incinerators. After 2007, garbage was no longer allowed to be dumped in landfills, and despite improvements in recycling, the majority’s of Taiwan’s trash is still incinerated. But the increase in incineration led to a backlash among neighborhoods that didn’t want the plants in their backyards.

So Tainan City came up with a rather unique way to reverse the tide of public opinion — by turning its incineration plant into a full-fledged water park à la Six Flags or Kings Dominion. So now every summer, against the backdrop of a looming incineration tower, Tainan’s children play in a massive wave pool while parents enjoy an indoor hydropathical spa in one of the largest water parks in southern Taiwan.

Likewise, further to the north, a large incineration plant in Taipei doubles as an elegant revolving restaurant, with the top of the furnace tower offering spectacular views of the cityscape while trash is incinerated far below.

The government uses these types of schemes not only to win over the public, but the private sector as well — a far more daunting task for most environmentalists. To that end, the government has developed various public-private partnerships including several large environmental science and technology parks located throughout the island to promote green industries.

One such company taking advantage of a park located in Kaohsiung County is Epoch Energy Technology Corp., which produces a line of oxy-hydrogen generators that offer a clean alternative to traditional gas-burning devices.

Using ordinary water as a fuel source, Epoch’s patented electrolysis technology delivers mixed oxygen-hydrogen gas on demand for uses such as cooking and welding to large-scale incineration — all while emitting harmless water vapor as its only byproduct.

Beyond the safety advantages of these water-based burners, Epoch’s technology is being eyed as an alternative energy source by countries such as Iceland looking to reduce the carbon footprint of traditional incinerators.

Other private endeavors at Kaohsiung are turning garbage into gold, so to speak, recycling everything from lead-acid batteries to metal sludge.

It’s exactly this type of entrepreneurial environmentalism that Dang and the Environmental Protection Administration want to see more of. “There is something religious about recycling,” Dang said. “It’s much like praying — you can’t go on without doing it, even just for a day.”

Waste Not, Want Not Given his passion for recycling, it makes sense then that Dang would appeal not just to businesses but to a higher power. To that end, he led a rare meeting between environmental ministers and dharma master Cheng Yen, a Buddhist monk who established the highly successful humanitarian nonprofit Tzu Chi Foundation.

It was a rare sight indeed as buttoned-down officials in suits and ties listened attentively to this diminutive, serene woman wrapped in traditional Buddhist garb as she offered her wisdom on preserving both Mother Nature and mankind.

“You have to inspire [people’s] spirit so they can really devote themselves to the physical world,” advised Cheng, who’s been called the Mother Theresa of the East and who knows a thing or two about inspiring people.

More than 40 years ago, Cheng abandoned her substantial family wealth to live a simple life that combined Buddhist spiritual teachings with “earthly” acts of kindness, which eventually spawned the Tzu Chi Foundation. Today, the Taiwan-based movement boasts networks in more than 60 countries that provide disaster relief, education, health care, environmental protection and various other forms of assistance to millions.

In fact, Cheng’s fundamental philosophy of compassionate love and direct giving has inspired a following of 10 million volunteers around the world, from the housewives who donated a few cents a day to start the movement, to the medical volunteers who recently rushed over to Burma in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

That’s the word from Rey-Sheng Her, who himself was so inspired by Cheng’s teachings that he abandoned a lucrative career as a television news anchorman to serve as spokesman for Tzu Chi. Her led a tour for foreign journalists around one of Cheng’s most remarkable accomplishments: the Tzu Chi General Hospital in Hualien, a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility that is the only one of its kind on Taiwan’s east coast to treat severely ill, poor patients.

As nurses in crisp white uniforms and yellow-vested Tzu Chi volunteers dart around the hospital, a nearby museum stands as a testament to its founder’s many other accomplishments — which range from creating one of Asia’s largest bone marrow banks, to partnerships with Christian and Muslim communities in Jordan, to building earthquake-proof schools in rural China.

Cheng’s volunteers also account for about half of the plastic bottles collected for recycling in Taiwan. They’ve also assisted with thousands of recycling stations throughout the island, and collected and sold recyclable materials worth more than million since 1990.

Cheng explained to the environmental government delegation that Tzu Chi often relies on elderly people in its recycling efforts because it gives them a sense of purpose that “they are still useful for society.”

Moreover, recycling relates back to her broader beliefs on living a humbler, less materialistic existence, because often “garbage is a sign of extravagance” that negatively impacts everyone because it depletes limited resources.

Cheng herself accepts no personal donations and lives in much the same way she did when she began Tzu Chi, subsisting on farming, handiwork and candle making. Only today, her and about 100 disciples maintain a Buddhist sanctuary in the mountains of Hualien. In fact, despite her worldwide presence, Cheng has never ventured outside of Taiwan.

This lack of pretension has even impressed the Chinese. Although it took nearly 20 years of trust building, Tzu Chi’s motto of “no politics, no propaganda and no religion” eventually earned the group access into China’s rural heartlands — which at the time was unprecedented for an overseas NGO, let alone one from Taiwan.

As Cheng herself put it: “different religions go by different names, but the common value is love.”

Cloud of Politics Looms Large Despite the inroads the Taiwan-based Tzu Chi has made with the mainland, the question of China and its ecological impact on Taiwan is never far behind on the minds of most Taiwanese.

That’s because China’s air pollution is never far behind either. High levels of mercury and other pollutants have been detected in the atmosphere by a monitoring station atop Jade Mountain, which Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration has blamed on coal burning and steel manufacturing in China, located less than 100 miles across the Taiwan Straits.

“China has to realize that it’s not just their problem — it’s a global problem,” said former Environmental Minister Dang, who described air pollution and climate change as the two biggest threats to Taiwan, which has a delicate island ecosystem with a range of climate zones that makes its especially vulnerable to rising temperatures and sea levels.

Dang — who previously worked for Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration for 15 years before becoming a legislator and minister — was a political appointee who has since been replaced by Stephen Shu-hung Shen.

Dang’s departure after the changeover in power from Chen Shui-bian to current President Ma Ying-jeou also raises the issue of how committed the new administration will be to environmental reform. A former Taipei mayor, Ma’s Kuomintang party is widely seen as more pro-Beijing and pro-business than its predecessor, neither of which bodes especially well for pushing through tough environmental regulations or carbon cutbacks on industry.

Although it’s too early to tell how Ma will tread on the environmental front, it’s clear that the seed of eco activism has been planted in Taiwanese society from the national to the grassroots level — whether it’s a factory giving new life to old refrigerators or a Buddhist monk practicing some divine intervention by picking up a few plastic bottles.

About the Author

Larry Luxner, news editor of The Washington Diplomat, contributed to this report. Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist of the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999