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In a large open space overlooking central Taipei, Arthur Huang hands me a translucent, honeycomb-shaped polyethylene panel. Named Polli-Brick, this colorless module made from old plastic bottles can be interlocked with others to build an incredible array of structures — such as the nine-story EcoARK pavilion, a sleek exhibition hall located a few blocks away in the heart of Taiwan’s capital.
These bricks are among countless products that Huang and his team at the international upcycling company Miniwiz derive from post-consumer waste, turning objects like aluminum cans, shoe soles and cigarette butts into building materials and more.
“Over the past decade, we have experimented on over 1,200 different waste materials to figure out their mechanical properties,” says Huang as he sips a coffee from a cup made of broken iPhone screens. “Polli-Brick is just one success out of a myriad of trials and errors.”
A 40-year-old structural engineer and architect, Huang, the company’s CEO and co-founder, set up operations in Taiwan in 2005 after a failed attempt in New York, where he found few Americans who shared his will to reduce the staggering amount of waste humans churn out every day.
In Taiwan, to his relief, he found a different story. This densely populated island of more than 23 million off mainland China has one of the world’s most efficient recycling programs, claiming 55 percent of trash collected from households and commerce, as well as 77 percent of industrial waste. According to Plastics Technology, in 2015 more than 1,600 recycling companies were in operation, bringing in some $2 billion in annual revenues.
Today it’s hard to see any trash or even garbage bins while walking through Taipei. Yet this transformation was hardly conceivable just 25 years ago, when the island struggled so much to clean up the waste resulting from rising living standards and soaring consumption that it had the unflattering moniker of “Garbage Island.”
It took a raft of protests and blockades to change the situation. Faced with mounting unrest, the government proposed erecting dozens of incinerators to burn waste. It also drafted a new waste management framework encouraging citizens and manufacturers to adopt practices that result in less garbage generated.
Under the scheme, companies play an active role either by handling their own garbage or by paying a waste fee subsidizing a government-run fund for waste infrastructure. Taiwanese citizens must put their mixed waste into government-approved blue bags they purchase. By contrast, recyclable materials like glass, aluminum, and paper can be placed in any kind of bag.
The collection process is a community ritual. Classical music piped from trucks alerts local residents that it’s time to go outside with bags containing the recyclables and mixed waste. A bright yellow pickup truck collects general trash, while a smaller white truck behind it has a set of bins into which people can throw recyclable materials, from raw food to cardboard. Volunteers and officials help people sort their garbage properly. Collected materials are sent to facilities where they get sorted and then sent to companies like Miniwiz or Da Fon that recycle them in a variety of ways. Some waste still ends up in landfills and incinerated.
While it may sound a bit complex, the process seems to have won people’s favor. Yuchen Hsu, a 26-year-old accountant, told me that she doesn’t mind she has to haul her waste to the garbage truck personally. “Sometimes I miss it, but the trucks circulate twice a day, so I never keep my trash in my house more than a day,” she says.
For those looking for more flexibility, Taipei has installed a smart recycling booth that adds value to a person’s mass transit access card for every recyclable bottle or can. Lee Wei-bin, a 37-year-old nurse, says she likes that initiative. “My job doesn’t allow me to be always there when the truck comes,” she says. “But I can go to the station whenever I want and also get some money back. I think it’s a good thing.”
Those caught trying to get rid of their trash improperly may risk fines or public shaming. “For a policy like this to work, you have to make each one responsible for his personal consumption. You need waste disposal to sit firmly in the public consciousness,” Lai Ying-ying, head of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration’s (EPA’s) waste management department, says. “It’s what makes [a] circular economy actually happen.”
Today, the average Taiwanese person produces 850 grams (1.9 pounds) of waste daily, down from 1.20 kilograms (2.6 pounds) 15 years ago. Recycling rates have been reported to exceed 50 percent, although those numbers have been disputed. Many of the island’s incinerators are now running below capacity. Overall, the island produces more recyclable waste than non–reusable waste.
The model has its challenges. In the past, incidents of ash being illegally dumped from incinerators raised concerns over public health, while accusations of inflated statistics sparked a debate around the reliability of the recycling process. The island is also increasing its import of plastic waste from abroad after China’s recent ban — a development seen by some as an environmental threat. Another concern relates to the growing use of composite material that makes sorting more problematic, hampering the creation of new value through recycling.
Lai Ying-ying concedes that mistakes were made in the past and that there are improvements to be made. However, she says she believes that Taiwan’s transformation can be held as an example at a time “when many developing countries, especially in the southern hemisphere, are grappling with similar trash challenges.”
Ming-Chien Su, a natural resources and environmental studies professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, agrees.
“Taiwan lacked the financial means of Japan or other European nations when it started its waste scheme. Yet it managed to build a multibillion-dollar recycling supply chain that can process much of the garbage it produces while cleaning its streets,” she says. “This does teach us that developing an effective waste management policy is a question of will, and not only wealth.”
Perhaps, with plastic production showing no sign of diminishing and economic growth inextricably linked to waste generation, rising economies might look at Taiwan before issues with their own garbage get out of control.
Marcello Rossi is a freelance science and environmental journalist based in Milan, Italy. His work has been published by Undark, Al Jazeera, Smithsonian, Reuters, Wired, and Outside, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published on Ensia, a nonprofit media outlet published by the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.