Recycling Culture in Taiwan

The New York Times recently published an article about my favorite small, sweet potato-shaped island: "Short on Space, Taiwan Embraces a Boom in Recycling." According to the article, recycling rates in Taiwan are among the highest in the world, largely in response to limited real estate, as well as the valuable waste produced by technology companies:

In the boom days of the 1980s and 1990s, factories in Taiwan made products as varied as plastic umbrellas and high-tech electronics for the rest of the world. As production soared, the land-poor island of 23 million people began running out of places to dump its waste. [...] Mountains of fetid household waste rotted in the streets. Public and disused spaces became dumping grounds for some of the toxic waste from the industrial boom.

“There were mountains of trash on the streets," said Yeh Chun-hsien, the president of the Chung Tai Resource Technology Corporation, a recycling company based in Taipei. "The government had to do something." (New York Times)

During the island's first presidential election in 1996, the public demanded a solution. In 1998, the government introduced a fee for producers based upon the cost of recycling their waste. The fee (about $6 billion every year) was rebated to recycling companies, and then passed on to collectors and residents.

However, in many cases, recycling companies pay for the chance to collect the highly valuable waste produced by the island's technology companies. For example, the price of gold -- a component in semiconductor manufacturing -- recently reached $1,900 an ounce. Today, many recycling companies specialize in the lucrative collection and processing of precious metals and toxic chemicals.

Additionally, as a resident of Taiwan between 2011 and 2012, I observed a strong recycling culture, in which nearly all Taiwanese citizens conscientiously divided and disposed of their waste. Following our first Fulbright meeting -- featuring the national favorite, the lunch box (bian dang) -- our supervisors collected the cardboard lunch boxes, wooden chopsticks, plastic chopstick wrappers, rubber bands, and food waste, disposing of each in separate containers. I witnessed a similar scene after lunches at the elementary school where I taught English.

Furthermore, every evening, Taiwanese residents are greeted by a familiar tune...

The music blasted from vehicle speakers -- Beethoven's "Für Elise" in some neighborhoods, and Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska's "A Maiden's Prayer" in others -- signaled that the garbage and recycling trucks were approaching. The residents of my 20-story apartment building quickly gathered their waste and packed the elevators in a mad dash to the street. Paper, plastic, glass and other recyclable goods were collected on alternating days, while the trash truck (with separate bins for food waste) collected non-recyclable waste daily.

As Americans accustomed to tossing our trash and forgetting about it, my roommate and I were initially resentful of this ritual. But we soon found that personally disposing of our trash made us more conscious of the waste we produced every day. (Admittedly, I was considerably less receptive to the daily trash dash during monsoon season!)

Taiwan has established an admirable recycling culture, supported by public policy incentives and behavioral changes. Are we capable of the same in the United States? Or will it take "mountains of trash on the street" to inspire the same urgency for reform?