In the 1980s and 1990s, Taiwan experienced an industrial boom as the Asian Tiger’s economy diversified and matured. Taiwanese factories supplied nearly half of the world’s umbrellas in addition to a significant chunk of consumer electronics from such ubiquitous brands as General Instruments and IBM.
But the Taiwan Miracle had a dark side – mountains of trash lined the streets and open spaces that weren’t snatched up by manufacturing developers often became landfills or toxic waste dumps. As disgruntled citizens clashed with government officials about how to handle the side effects of rapid industrialization, it seemed that Taiwan had grown too big to exist comfortably on a small island.
Now, Taiwan is experiencing a different kind of boom. Recycling firms, which have grown in number from about 100 in the 80s and 90s to more than 2,000 at present, are turning heaps of waste into billions of dollars.
Taiwan’s Industrial Development Bureau at the Ministry of Economic Affairs stated that recyclers earned $2.2 billion in revenue last year, up from $840 million a decade ago.
“Trash is valuable [in Taiwan] – the byproduct of a world now dependent on technology,” said The New York Times. “Taiwan, which is home to a host of technology companies like Asus, Acer and HTC, produces more electronics per capita than any other country.”
Many of Taiwan’s recycling companies specialize in separating precious metals from consumer electronics – a practice that can literally transform garbage into gold. One company claimed that it could extract 99.99 percent pure gold from discarded electronic equipment.
Between 1997 and 2011, the Taiwanese government was able to slash daily household waste accumulation from 1.14 kg to a mere 0.43 kg. Over that same period, the national recycling rate exploded from 5.87 percent to more than 60 percent – making Taiwan one of the world’s top recyclers and a leader in pro-environment policy for the Asia Pacific.
“Taiwan used to be an island with serious air pollution and garbage problems,” Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Minister Stephen Shu-hung Shen told Taiwan Today. “But it now stands as an example of what can be achieved through the implementation of advanced waste management practices.”
The success of Taiwan’s waste management industry can be traced to a 1998 government fund that was established to encourage recycling. Manufacturers and importers pay a fee based on the estimated cost of collecting garbage – which is separated into 33 categories. The EPA then distributes those fees to recycling companies.
“We spend about 6 billion dollars each year on subsidies to the recycling companies, which pay collectors, who then pay the residents,” explained EPA Recycling Fund Management Board spokesperson Lee Shou-chien.
Taiwan is a key innovator in the recycling industry. A new initiative to collect Tetra Paks – cartons used for packaging liquid that are made from paper, glue and aluminum foil – was recently put into action in Chiyai. While most people put Tetra Pak “cartons” alongside ordinary paper trash, the former must be recycled using a special process.
“The technology for separating the aluminum and plastic from the paper is already available in Taiwan,” said Lin Chien-hung, Chiyai’s EPA local bureau chief. “The plastic and aluminum thus obtained can be used in other products, while the paper can be pressed under great heat into boards and used to make furniture or as construction material.”
Though Taiwan is not a member of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ROC government is “ready, willing and able” to lend its expertise to global environmental welfare efforts. If the country’s impressive record for recycling and waste management is any indication, the world should embrace its advice.