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Taiwan Sets Sights on Zero Waste Policy

April 23, 2005


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Sifting through garbage isn't something most people are very keen on but, in Taiwan, dodging the dirty duty could result in a fine of almost US$200.

Every night, Chang watches her neighbors haul bags of trash past her laundry store to a street corner, where they wait for the wafting melody of Beethoven's Fuer Elise blared from loudspeakers to herald the arrival of the garbage truck.

The lorry stops for about 15 minutes while residents toss their rubbish onto the back as city workers check the litter has been properly sorted into three groups: recyclables, kitchen scraps and non-recyclable waste.

If not, Chang and her compatriots are liable for up to NT$6,000 in penalties as part of new government drive to reduce household non-recyclable waste to 25 percent of garbage by 2020 from the present 80 percent.

"It does take me more time, but the results are obvious. I definitely throw out less trash now," said Chang, who has lived in Taipei for 25 years.

"Everybody has to sacrifice a little to protect our environment. It's for our younger generation."

Recycling has become an urgent issue in Taiwan as the crowded, mountainous island of 23 million people is rapidly running out of space to dump its trash.

Taiwan, slightly larger than Belgium but with double the population, has 200 landfills which will all be full in two years, the Environment Protection Administration says.

Then, the island will be dependent on trash incinerators - huge, unsightly furnaces that emit poisonous fumes and are highly unpopular with residents. Incinerators already tackle two-thirds of Taiwan's non-recycled waste.

"We have targeted a zero-waste policy for within the next two years," Chen Hsiung-wen, the head of the environmental agency's Bureau of Solid Waste Management, told Reuters in an interview.

"We have spent 15 years educating our people about recycling and we have a lot of confidence in the citizens' support."

Going green

The forced recycling scheme, to be implemented across Taiwan by January 2006, is part of an ambitious government goal to cut the number of trash incinerators to five, from 20, within 20 years.

Chen said trials in Taipei found over 90 percent of residents followed the new rules.

In the mid-1990s, household garbage often festered in piles on Taiwan streets as trash collection was haphazard and there was no formal recycling policy.

The island had been preoccupied with industrialization, with factories spewing pollutants, fouling rivers and taking a toll on the natural environment. But as family incomes rose green issues took root and Taiwan began to promote recycling in the 1990s.

In 2000, the capital Taipei ordered all non-reusable waste to be disposed of in translucent plastic bags that were 10 times more expensive than regular bags used for recycled waste.

The idea was to encourage families to save money through recycling, and it seemed to be producing results. Taiwan's trash output shrank to 720 grams per person per day last year - one third less than in 1989, EPA figures show.

Recycled garbage accounted for 20 percent of annual waste from households or businesses of 6.7 million tons in 2004.

The figures stacked up well against Japan and South Korea, which are also densely populated and running out of room for garbage.

The Japanese government estimates 16 percent of household waste is recycled, with trash at 1.1 kg per person per day.

To boost recycling, Japan has introduced taxes on new cars and some appliances such as refrigerators, with the money going to help recycle materials when they are no longer wanted.

In South Korea, 44 percent of household waste is collected for recycling and daily per-capita garbage is 1.04 kg.

Environmental groups in Taiwan say that while the lower level of trash on their island looks good, the recycling program has many holes.

The Homemakers' Union and Foundation, one of the island's most vocal green groups, said many items set for recycling still end up in incinerators and landfills due to inadequate sorting.

Talking trash

Demand for recycled goods is also not high, the group said. For example, a lot of kitchen waste is burned because of lack of demand from farmers for use as animal feed or fertilizers.

"The main problem now in Taiwan for recycling is: in the end who buys recycled plastics, who uses it?" said Manli Chen, executive director of the Homemakers' Union.

"Soda or mineral water bottles can be recycled for money, but plastic bags and other plastics, there isn't any money for them."

She said plastics accounted for around 23 percent of municipal waste in landfills and incinerators and she called for higher subsidies to encourage recycling.

EPA officials deny that there is a financial issue. They said the plastics that slip through the government's recycling net are mostly stuffed by residents in their regular trash bags - hence the new fines.

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