“Environmental Possibilities: Zero Waste” features new ways of thinking, acting, and shaping government policy that are circling the globe. Each week, we highlight a success story in the zero waste movement, excerpted from the report On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and Lessons from Around the World by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). GAIA is a powerful worldwide alliance of more than 650 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries. Their collective goal is a just, toxic-free world without incineration. Other Worlds is excited to promote the work of GAIA and the organized communities it works with, and hopes that the stories inspire you and others to begin moving your home, town or city, nation, and planet toward zero waste.
In the 1980s, the island of Taiwan was facing a massive waste crisis due to a lack of space to expand its landfill capacity. When the government proposed large-scale incineration, fierce opposition from the community not only stopped the construction of dozens of burners, but also drove the government to adopt goals and programs for waste prevention and recycling that were so effective that the volume of waste decreased significantly, even while both population and gross domestic product increased.
A combination of high population density, rapid industrial growth, landfills reaching full capacity, and lack of space for new dumping grounds led the Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency (TEPA) to adopt incineration in the 1980s as the priority for waste treatment. This shift was reaffirmed in 1990 with a plan to build 21 large-scale waste-to-energy incinerators, and again in 1996 when investors were solicited to build another 15 municipal solid waste incinerators to meet the national goal of at least one incinerator per county.
Communities organized widely against these plans, leading to the creation of the Taiwan Anti-Incinerators Alliance (TAIA). As a result, by 2002, only 19 of the 36 planned incinerators had been built. The total capacity of those 19 incinerators was 21,000 tons per day, while nationwide municipal solid waste production was less than 20,000 tons per day. Still, TEPA was holding to its plan to expand incineration capacity immensely. A total of 122 community organizations signed a letter to the government warning of overcapacity of existing incinerators, as well as the environmental and health problems linked to incinerator emissions, and urged the government to put resources instead into safer and sustainable alternatives like waste prevention, recycling, and composting.
As a result of community pressure, TEPA adopted a zero waste policy in 2003. Initially, the definition of zero waste included incineration, but after criticism from community organizations, the wording adopted in December 2003 defined zero waste as “effectively recycling and utilizing resources through green production, green consumption, source reduction, recovery, reuse, and recycling.” In addition, the policy established waste diversion targets of 25 percent by 2007, 40 percent by 2011, and 75 percent by 2020.
Minimizing Packaging and Disposables
Taiwan´s approach to waste prevention puts a strong emphasis on Extended Producer Responsibility—making producers responsible for changes in design and production to reduce the waste generated by their products and packaging. Producers also manage their own items after they are discarded, taking back materials for reuse or disposal. This approach combines mandatory reduction goals, voluntary agreements, and incentives for businesses and industries.
Restricting the weight of boxes. In 2006, the government adopted restrictions relating to packaging for computer software CDs and gift boxes for pastry, cosmetics, alcoholic beverages and food. In 2009, TEPA signed a packaging reduction agreement with five major portable computer manufacturers that eliminated about 3,700 tons of computer packaging waste in just one year.
Banning disposable tableware at schools and government agencies. In 2006, TEPA requested government agencies and schools to stop using disposable tableware, and in 2007 the requirement was extended to paper cups.
Reducing plastic bags and plastic packaging. In 2007, TEPA required supermarkets to prepare plans to reduce plastic packaging. The businesses had to meet waste reduction targets of 15 percent and 25 percent in the first and second years, and 35 percent in 2011. Stores began to use thinner packaging and to sell goods unpackaged (30 percent of the products were sold unpackaged by the second year of implementation). According to TEPA, the amount of plastic from non-renewable resources used for packaging was reduced by 1,400 tons between July 2007 and December 2009.
Encouraging a reduction in disposable chopsticks. In 2008, the government asked stores and cafeterias to provide reusable chopsticks and not automatically give out disposable chopsticks with takeout food, a policy estimated to reduce 350 tons of waste per year.
Reducing disposable cups. In 2011, fast food, beverage, and convenience store chains were required by TEPA to provide discounts or extra portions to customers who brought their own cups, or give customers US $0.03 for every two cups they return as an incentive to get shops to recycle their own cups.
Taiwanese legislation requires manufacturers and importers of mandatory recycling items like packaging and containers, tires, some electric and electronic goods, automobiles, batteries, and fluorescent lamps to report them, label them, and pay a fee based on the material, volume, weight, and level of recycling. Most businesses selling beverages are required to install receptacles for empty containers; violators are subject to fines between US $2,000 and $10,000. Retailers selling electronics and electric products are legally required to take back and recycle these products and are prohibited from charging consumers for this service.
In 2005, Taiwan began to require the separation of all waste into recyclables, food waste, and residual waste. The program was initially implemented in seven cities and ten counties. The second phase, extending source separation to the whole nation, started in 2006. The waste-collection crews are required to sort the resources after they are collected. Every municipality has sites where materials are sorted and sold for recycling; sometimes they are sold mixed to recyclers who separate it themselves.
Recovery of source-separated food waste is covered by the Food Waste Recovery and Reuse Plan. By 2009, 319 townships had food waste recycling systems. The total volume of food waste collected per day rose from 80 tons in 2001 to 1,977 tons in 2009. Approximately 75 percent of the recovered food waste is sold to pig farms for about US $13.70 per ton. Most of the rest of the food waste is composted. To encourage food scrap recovery, the national government provides subsidies to local governments for education, promotion, and composting facilities.
More wealth almost always creates more waste, but Taiwan’s example shows that aggressive waste prevention programs can break this correlation. Waste generation in Taiwan dropped from 8.7 to 7.95 million tons between 2000 and 2010, despite a 47 percent increase in GDP in the same period. At the same time, the population also grew, so in 2010 per capita waste generation was 12.7 percent lower than in 2000.
The amount of waste incinerated in the country has remained fairly constant since 2002. Currently 24 incinerators burn 60 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste and 40 percent of its industrial waste. An analysis of the waste being burned in municipal waste incinerators in Taichung, Taipei, and Tainan showed that 48.6 percent of it is organic (i.e., kitchen waste and organic yard waste), while nonorganic recyclable resources account for 9.3 percent. Thus, 57.9 percent of what is being burned is recyclable or compostable. What’s more, the construction and operation of incinerators drain funds for years that could otherwise be used to boost resource recovery.
While the government publicizes its waste prevention and recycling policies, many more improvements could be made. The people of Taiwan have expressed deep opposition to the practice of burning waste and a willingness to engage in waste prevention and recycling practices. Successes of recent years, however, are proof that citizen pressure can continue to produce effective and innovative changes.