In 2013, The New York Times praised Taiwan for being good at turning rubbish into wealth, using examples such as the national recycling rate jumping from 5% 20 years ago to today’s 42%, and the number of resource recycling companies having increased to more than 2,000, with an annual output of NT $65.8 billion.
Three years later, The Wall Street Journal also complimented Taiwan for being “the world’s geniuses of garbage disposal”, citing an increased national recycling rate of 55%, only lower than Austria’s 63% and Germany’s 62%, and higher than the United Kingdom’s 39%, the United States’ 34% and Japan’s 21%.
This achievement can be attributed to the government’s requirement that manufacturers of products in 33 categories prepay a waste charge to a fund, which is then used to subsidise recycling companies. More recently, the government also allowed the private sector to turn industrial waste into commodities. Because Taiwan is already a place where electronic industries are highly clustered, making bricks, concrete, and lightweight aggregate out of sludge has suddenly become a big business.
Unexpectedly, many waste management companies were prosecuted in 2015 as a result of illegally dumping sludge into rivers right after reporting the amount they had “recycled” to the authorities. This shows that Taiwan’s high resource recycling rate has been false, and also proves a hindrance to the “circular economy” advocated by Taiwan’s new president.
In a circular economy world, nothing is treated as waste. Imagine for a moment the way that nature works: withered flowers and leaves provide nutrients to other living creatures, fallen trees become hotbeds of other species’ growth and dead animals decompose into the soil, nurturing the next generation of life. Why can’t our industries learn from nature? If the product development stage ensured that all components were designed so that they could be reused to make another product, even something broken could become something new. Not only would this mean that waste was not generated, but also that a new industry would be created.
The fundamental condition necessary for achieving this goal is to build a mechanism of “reverse logistics”, which can bring all resources back into the hands of producers or recycling companies. However, at the moment, recycling channels are not sufficient to deal with the issue, meaning that many potential resources are incinerated as though they are useless garbage. Exactly how much of these resources, mostly electronic waste, plastic waste, kitchen waste and excrement, is there in Taiwan?
The more developed the industry, the greater the waste
1. 18.6 kilograms of electronic waste is produced per capita each year, which is more than three times the global average.
High-technology industries are highly developed in Taiwan, which has resulted in the prevalence of information appliances. At the same time, electronic waste is also increasing, with an annual output of 438,000 tonnes, or 18.6 kilograms per capita, which is more than three times the global average of 5.9 kilograms.
However, discarded electronic appliances, such as televisions, washing machines, and so on, are only recycled at a rate of 61.64% and discarded information appliances, such as computers, screens, etc., are only recycled at a rate of 36.43%, meaning that about half of electronic waste is not recycled.
2. 18 billion plastic shopping bags are consumed each year, while the recycling rate is less than 10%.
Plastic’s resilience makes it widely useful and one of the most convenient things in our daily lives. But its convenience also results in us discarding 51 kilograms per capita each year with a recycling rate of only 27%, which is lower than the European Union’s average of 35%.
When it comes to plastic, plastic shopping bags are consumed in the largest amount. Each year, an average of 782 plastic bags are used per capita, which is four times more than in the European Union. Because plastic bags are lightweight and conveniently sized, they are normally used for containing rubbish and discarded in general waste, which results in their recycling rate of less than 10%.
3. About 3.78 million tonnes of kitchen waste is produced each year, but only 610,000 tonnes of this is recycled. Almost all the remaining kitchen waste ends up in incinerators.
Agriculture is the foundation of the nation of Taiwan, but this industry generates a large amount of biowaste. In the production and processing stages of rice, fruit and vegetables, fish, livestock and processed food, it is estimated that 6.25 million tonnes of biowaste is generated each year. However, at the moment, there is no purpose-built recycling channel for this kind of waste, so most of it ends up being incinerated.
Kitchen waste is what farm products become after being cooked and discarded. Households, restaurants and schools generate a total of 3.78 million tonnes of kitchen waste, but only 610,000 tonnes are recycled. In addition, analysis by the Environmental Protection Administration discovered that 40.39% of total kitchen waste is mixed with general garbage, which means it is estimated that at least 2.94 million tonnes of kitchen waste is incinerated.
4. Pigs, cattle and chickens generate 15.43 million tonnes of faeces and urine per year, most of which is discharged into rivers, potentially polluting the environment.
Faeces and urine excreted by poultry and livestock constitute reusable biowaste. Pigs, cattle and chickens account for the majority of livestock in Taiwan. These three kinds of domestic animals generate 15.43 million tonnes of faeces and urine, most of which is discharged into rivers after treatment. However, because of insufficient equipment and inadequate government inspection, problems like greenhouse gas emissions, river eutrophication and heavy metal pollution are often created.
Apart from the faeces and urine excreted by poultry and livestock, if we also include the other main forms of biowaste, such as farm waste, kitchen waste, human faeces and urine, and sewer sludge, there is approximately 40.75 million tonnes of biowaste, or 1.73 tonnes per capita. At the moment, there is no clear method for reutilising this in most cases.
Industrial waste and biological excrement are not rubbish, but gold
The rate at which waste has accumulated in our society has been breathtaking, leading to the birth of a circular economy. A circular economy is not just about putting rubbish out of sight, but instead about cherishing things that others no longer want and reutilising rubbish using the three key methods of repair, reuse and remanufacture. Because Taiwan lacks natural resources, it has no choice but to make better use of waste than most other countries. At the moment, there are already a number of companies working on this issue and turning today’s waste into tomorrow’s resources.
For example, DA.AI Technology turns plastic bottles into warm blankets and clothes; Spring Pool Glass Industrialmakes glass art and fire-resistant building materials out of recycled wine bottles and electronic screens; Hong Ming Eco Technology uses rice husks and wheat straws to make general plastics; and Singtex uses coffee grounds to make clothes and fabrics that keep you warm or cool.
Scientists have found that children born in recent years will one day witness a world that has experienced the complete depletion of petroleum, gas and 40 kinds of natural resources. Now, let us look around and see how many kinds of industrial and biological waste lie nearby. You might be able to use your creativity to turn them into resources!