The Planet

Yes, Richer Countries Produce More Waste. But Do They Have To? 

by Rosie Spinks

December 1, 2014
Photo by Timothy Krause/Flickr

When it’s garbage day in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, you won’t see abandoned trash bags on the streets waiting for pickup, as you might in Manhattan. Instead, you’ll find Taiwanese citizens lining up to heave their own bags into the garbage truck each and every night. By turning rubbish collection into a daily civic duty, this island of 23.5 million has been remarkably successful at achieving something that eludes most developing nations: The richer Taiwan gets, the less trash it produces.

Thanks to policies implemented in 1988, the government has been able to decouple GDP growth and production of household waste over a period of about one generation. As the nation’s wealth has risen—approaching $40,000 per capita—the Taiwanese somehow managed to waste less and defy the notion put forth by economists Michael McDonough and Carl Riccadonna that economic growth leads to more consumption and, therefore, more waste. Today, the average Taiwanese citizen produces less than a kilogram of trash per day, according to the Taiwanese Institute for Sustainable Energy. By comparison, the average American produces roughly two kilos (or about four and a half pounds).

Image courtesy of Taiwan Institute for Sustainable Energy

So how has Taiwan done it? First, through education. School children receive environmentally themed lessons as part of the curriculum from kindergarten all the way through high school. But it doesn’t end there. All government officials—including the president and prime minister—must receive at least four hours of environmental education each year.

Meanwhile, the dearth of rubbish bins in public space is designed to make the Taiwanese more aware of what they're sending to the landfill; and unlike Americans, their heightened awareness of environmental issues means they don’t just leave their coffee cups in the street if there’s no trash bin present. Simultaneously, sorted recycling bins on the sidewalks provide an alternative to trashcans and encourage waste diversion, putting Taiwan’s overall recycling rate above 60 percent. And with Taiwan’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) law, manufacturers and importers of products that will turn into waste bear the responsibility for collection and recycling, or otherwise have to pay fees to the nation’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA).

But perhaps most effective is the nation’s policy on household waste. In addition to depositing their own bags, Taiwanese residents must also be mindful of how much trash they are accumulating. Landfill-bound garbage can only be collected in government-issued blue bags, which are sold behind the counter at convenience stores. While the cost is not prohibitive—the price increases with size, with a pack of the five largest bags costing $10—it’s certainly enough to moderate what people throw out. (Forging garbage bags can incur a much heftier fine, and sometimes a prison sentence.) The approach has been so effective that Taiwan is in the process of closing some of its 24 trash incinerators because they simply don’t need them anymore.

Photo by Rosie Spinks

Taiwan’s approach to waste reflects its larger sustainability aims, which include ambitious carbon reduction targets of reaching year 2000 carbon dioxide levels by 2025. In addition, 93 percent of Taiwanese citizens believe in climate change and the need to do something about it, according to the country’s EPA. Considering that Taiwan is a small island nation vulnerable to typhoons and rising sea levels, as well as reliant on agricultural imports for two-thirds of its food supply, perhaps its particularly proactive stance is not so surprising.

But one of the most significant things about Taiwan’s trash program—and something developed nations would do well to emulate—is the public buy-in that the government has managed to achieve. It’s hard to imagine the extent of the uproar that would ensue if Americans had to exchange their 50-count rolls of three-gallon garbage bags for buying five pricey ones at a time, but it appears much of Taiwan’s citizenry is on board.

The former minister of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration, Dr. Eugene Chien, who helped create the program during his tenure, says its success proves that if you educate kids, they do the work for you.

“If you tell the adults that they must separate the garbage, they get mad with you,” Dr. Chien told a group of journalists at a meeting in November. “But if I teach their son or their daughter, then the parent will say, ‘Why is my child so smart?’ and they will do it.”

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Yes, Richer Countries Produce More Waste. But Do They Have To?