Why Taiwan should make more of a fuss about its recycling success story

In just 25 years, Taiwan has created one of the world’s most successful recycling cultures. But why don’t more people know about it?

Flickr user – Jin  - https://www.flickr.com/photos/omega6/4091595998

Flickr user – Jin - https://www.flickr.com/photos/omega6/4091595998

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) - Für Elise, or Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor to give it its full and proper title, is one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most popular compositions. But it was very nearly lost to the world. It was only discovered and published fully 40 years after his death.

It is fair to say that classical music has a rather modest following in Taiwan. But the main refrain of Für Elise is a tune that every Taiwanese person will recognize. Whether they are sat in one of the finest concert halls in the world or standing on a street corner holding a bag full of trash, the tune will provoke the same response: 垃圾車!

Taiwan’s garbage trucks (垃圾車) are iconic yellow beasts which roam the country’s town and cities night after night inviting people onto the streets to dispose of their trash. And it is Für Elise, or at least an electronic rendering of it, which calls them forth from their homes.

The yellow trucks are iconic; loved by children, videoed by tourists, cursed by early birds who like to turn in before 9pm. But much less attention is given to the small, silent, white trucks which more often than not follow them on their rounds. These white trucks collect Taiwan’s recyclable materials and, in truth, it is these which should really be lauded.

At the start of this year, a glowing article about Taiwan’s recycling culture was published in the Smithsonian. The article implied that this culture was well known and highly regarded in the outside world. But is it? Does Taiwan really make enough of a fuss about this staggering success story?

Some of the remarkable facts contained in the Smithsonian article bear repeating. In 1993, only 70% of Taiwan’s garbage was collected, and virtually none was recycled. At the same time, most landfills were full. Drastic measures were called for, and they were delivered.

Fast forward twenty-five years and around 55% of Taiwanese household garbage is recycled. For industrial waste, the figure is even higher, at 77%. Taiwan now produces more recyclable waste than non-reusable waste, and the country’s incinerators, also built in the mid-1990’s, are running below capacity.

Over the past fifteen years, the average amount of waste produced by a single Taiwanese person has fallen from 1.2 kilograms (2.6 pounds) to 850 grams (1.9 pounds). That’s a drop of almost a third.

But there is more. As well as changing Taiwan’s waste culture, the country has also created a multi-billion dollar economy around recycling. The Smithsonian article claims that in 2015 there were more than 1,600 recycling companies operating in Taiwan. They cite one such example, an upcycling company called Miniwiz, which has created a successful business in Taiwan after failing to do so in the USA.

That Taiwan has established an environment where these sorts of companies can thrive more than the world’s biggest economy should be a matter of intense national pride. But it is not just businesses that have benefited from the recycling boom. For many individuals, it also offers a lifeline.

Just about every neighborhood in Taiwan will have its local recyclers. These people are often elderly retired people with no other means of income besides the few NT$ they can earn each day by collecting up recyclable goods and selling them to private recycling centers.

There is, of course, a strong argument that elderly people should not have to collect and sell recycled materials in order to put food on the table. But the flip-side to that argument is that the job provides them with exercise, engagement with other people within their community, and gives them a purpose.

In actual fact, the community aspect of throwing out the trash is a lifeline for many. Even if they don’t depend on recycling for an income, it gives them a regular opportunity to speak with neighbors. For older Taiwanese people especially, this can be a highlight of the day. Meanwhile, the reality is that until Taiwan starts to give greater social support to the elderly, the opportunity to make money from recycling remains essential for some.

Whichever way you look at it, Taiwan’s recycling culture is now embedded in the national culture and is something which the country should be fiercely proud of. It is a world leader in this field and is setting an example which all developing and many developed countries could learn from.

In the UK, the debate on garbage collection is not how much is recycled, but whether local councils can afford to only collect garbage once every three weeks instead of once a fortnight. Far from being encouraged to recycle, British citizens are given a long list of items which cannot be recycled and are warned that if they put these items into their recycling it will either not be collected or the whole lot will be dumped in landfill. It is hardly surprising that there are many people in the UK that just think, ‘what’s the point’?

Taiwan’s model has proved that it is possible to change people’s behavior without dramatically increasing costs. All it takes is a little bit of community spirit and a lot of political will.

Would British people be willing to walk to the end of their street to drop off their garbage if it was collected daily? Well, the Taiwanese people do. Would they recycle as much as they can if they were incentivized to do so rather than penalized if they get it wrong? The Taiwanese people have on a huge scale. Would Britain like to create a new and successful multi-billion dollar industry that is an example to the world? Who wouldn’t?

Taiwan’s recycling industry is a massive success story, both environmentally and economically. It is an area where Taiwan has much to teach the world and is something that the Taiwanese government should be shouting about from the rooftops.

For some reason, successive Taiwanese governments have been surprisingly coy about this success story. It is high time that changed. People visiting Taiwan should be going home talking about recycling here, not just showing their friends a video of a garbage truck playing Für Elise.