As the world drowns in trash, Taiwan’s recycling success is a model of change and a beacon of hope.
Five nights a week across Taipei, the opening bars of Beethoven’s Für Elise signal the start of a modern tradition. Roused by the music booming from garbage trucks as they rattle along the bustling streets, residents rush to the curb clutching bags of pre-sorted trash — blue for garbage, white for recyclables. Aboard the trucks, workers separate recyclables into designated bins (plastic, paper, glass, metal, and so on). Raw food goes to the compost bin; cooked food will be reused as pig feed.
This impressively choreographed dance has become second-nature in the capital city of 2.7 million. But 30 years ago, it would have been unthinkable. In the ’80s and ’90s, Taiwan had one of the world’s worst urban waste problems. Its landfills overflowed and mountains of rubbish clogged street corners, earning it the unflattering moniker “Garbage Island.”
Fed up with the accumulation of waste, people across the country demanded action. They burned trash in the streets and rallied at dumping sites. Over the next two decades, the government overhauled the waste management infrastructure of the island from root to branch, investing in waste trucks and recycling plants and switching from landfills to incineration. New regulations compelled companies and consumers to share the physical and financial burden of recycling and garbage collection, establishing personal accountability and incentivizing people to produce less waste in the first place.
Yen-Chi Chang, 26, who grew up along the east coast of Taiwan and now works in marketing, was born just as the tides of trash were beginning to turn.
“When my parents were in school, no one paid attention to the importance of recycling,” said Chang. “[Now], we are told from an early age that we must recycle.”
Today, Taiwan’s 55% recycling rate is among the highest the world, up from virtually zero three decades ago. For comparison, the U.S. recycling rate is 34.7% and the European Union’s is 46%. The average Taiwanese person produces 850 grams (1.9 pounds) of waste daily, down from 1.2 kilograms (2.6 pounds) 15 years ago. In the U.S., the average was 4.4 pounds per person per day in 2013. This year, Taiwan committed to banning all single-use plastics — including bags, disposable cups, utensils and straws — by 2030.