From Miracle to Bottleneck: the Future of Municipal Solid Waste in Taiwan

Written by Natalie Wong.

Image credit: Taichung by Lordcolus/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

The economic boom and intensive urbanisation of the late 1970s generated a mountain of garbage in Taiwan. Improper waste disposal and poor municipal solid waste management (MSW) led to sanitary problems and environmental pollution. Although the Taiwanese government implemented a municipal waste policy in 1984, the citizens protested industrial landfills and open dumping sites for years. Later, the Taiwanese government implemented a recycling and waste scheme and the volume of waste was successfully reduced. The achievement of MSW management was reported in the Wall Street Journal as “The World’s Geniuses of Garbage Disposal”. The island is an exemplar of proper municipal waste management, and many cities in developing areas, especially those in China, attempted to learn and copy from Taiwan.

The Taiwanese government implemented the “Municipal Waste Disposal Plan” in 1984 by building incinerators and landfills. Later in the 1990s and early 2000s, the government promulgated laws and regulations to promote the principle of zero waste and discarded resource recycling. The “Resource Recycling Four-in-One Program” was introduced in 1997 and has integrated residents, recycling companies, local governments, and recycling funds to conduct resource recycling and waste minimisation. Three decades later, there are 24 incinerators and 404 landfills on the main island of Taiwan. The Taipei municipal government, for example, follows the central government’s policies of mandatory waste sorting, versatile usage of kitchen waste, multi-purpose usage of bulk waste, reuse of household renovation waste, zero waste, sewage treatment and retirement of old waste clearance vehicles. The municipal government also adopted a trash bag fee collection policy and required citizens to buy designated garbage bags with the “Taipei City Government Approved Symbol” and dispose of sorted garbage at designated collection points. The Taipei municipal government frequently and regularly updates garbage collection routes and points, and there are 53 garbage collection points in 12 administrative districts. Currently, there are three municipal waste incinerators in Neihu, Muzha and Beitou and one sanitary landfill in Shanzhuku. Municipal waste management has been successfully implemented over the last two decades and has seen the quantity of garbage reduced by 66.79% and the resource-recycling rate increased to 55%.

Increased public demand for change, particularly with the support of civil society and active civic engagement, influenced the government to address diversified interests in order to achieve its policy goals. Civil society organisations striving to change unsustainable consumption patterns and lifestyles are also working towards municipal solid waste management in Taiwan. The concept of lifestyle movements is useful for illustrating civil society organisations’ initiatives towards recycling waste and achieving a sustainable society. Homemakers United Foundation (HUF) and the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union (TEPU) are the core of environmental groups promoting green living in Taipei City. The religious organisation, Tzu Chi Foundation (TCF), integrates religious beliefs into environmental protection and community colleges also have a significant role in delivering the message of green living to the local community. These civil society organisations promote recycling, waste reduction, and green living which includes raising household awareness of waste reduction and separation. As Hsiao (1999) noticed, the local anti-pollution protests in the late 1970s and 1990s roused the victims and broader citizenry to understand the long-term impacts of pollution and built environmental consciousness for future societal concerns. We can see this greater emphasis of civic engagement and community participation in the frames of lifestyle movements in Taiwan. In recent years, the Taiwanese government has demonstrated its emphasis on waste sorting and reduction, which has inspired neighbouring cities in the Greater China Region, such as Hong Kong and Guangzhou, to follow the same path for municipal waste management.

However, there are still challenges for Taiwan to overcome. The Chinese government banned the import of foreign garbage in 2018, which put overseas waste import to Taiwan into flux. In addition, the scandal of exaggerated high recycling rates exposed Taiwan’s recycling myth. For instance, the amount of imported plastic waste has doubled between 2017-2018 and wastepaper has flooded into Taiwan’s domestic recycling market, resulting in an overload of Taiwan’s waste treatment and recycling capacity. Furthermore, recent reports found that the increasing costs of recycling plastic, glass, and polystyrene have ultimately resulted in incineration. The flooding of foreign waste and the decline of profit in recycling materials have raised both suspicion towards the reported high recycling rate and concern about the capacity of waste management.

With general public and civil society’s support of garbage sorting and recycling, Taiwan is a good example of waste management in the Asia Pacific region. However, there is still room for improvement in the policy and regulation processes of recycling. The influx of foreign waste as well as the declining market price of waste collection signifies a key shift in how the Taiwanese government approaches waste, and provides an opportunity to determine what its role will be in the global waste trade system.

Natalie Wong is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Email: nataliew@cityu.edu.hk This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s environmental issues.

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