mitcho Michael 芳貴 Erlewine

Postdoctoral fellow, McGill Linguistics.

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Taiwanese Recycling

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A little while ago I read a NY Times blog entitled Chinese Recycling by Anne-Marie Slaughter. The piece opened as a description of the collection of food waste on Yangtze riverboats and went on to compare this situation to food production and consumption in the US. The article—in my opinion unfortunately—did not continue to discuss the tradition of responsible recycling in East Asia.

Not everyone lives on a riverboat, and recycling in the city is of course far more challenging. The exact things Slaughter frowns upon, such as plastic packaging, are the enemy. Trash and recycling pickup in Taiwan does not involve leaving it on the side of the street… the trash car,2 followed by the recycling truck, come down the street playing a catchy tune (the same as in Japan, in fact). You have to run out and give them your trash and recycling (and organic waste, another category), sometimes running after the trucks a bit. There’s nothing passive about it.3 Unlike Japan with its anal retentive trash pickup, there aren’t any monthly recycling calendars dictating when you can take out your old stereo. But in some communities there are certain days of the week for glass, aluminum, etc… in the rural community where I live, they take all recycling every day, together, but the recycling man on the truck sorts the recycling right as you give it to him. I try to give my different types of recycling separately to make his life easier.

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Taiwan has also cracked down on plastic bags—in some places, you can get them, but you’ll have to pay a dollar or two NT (about 5 cents US). Some places don’t have them at all. The Anya Hindmarch “I Am Not A Plastic Bag” bag has also been a big seller in Taiwan, receiving media attention as 環保包 or 環保袋 (huánbǎobāo, huánbǎodài, “the environmental protection bag”). Here’s a photo of one I snapped at the ETA-ROC conference.

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Failing to properly dispose of garbage, recycling, and organic waste lead to pretty steep fines. In addition, businesses, especially restaurants, are subject to compulsory recycling programs. Even McDonald’s has separate trash and recycling bins, with photos of what items go where right on top. Taiwan recycles 26.6 percent of all its waste, as of 2006, up from 5.87 percent in 1998. The efforts put into the consistent and professional trash and recycling programs have also cut down on customs such as trash burning which pollute the air. This and various legislation have vastly improved both water and air quality in the past 20 years.

With the pressure of being a small island nation comes a heightened responsibility for the responsible use of its land and resources. Taiwan is a leader in this area, continuously improving its waste management systems through innovation and legislation. Such practices would be interesting to compare to many American communities.


  1. Many photos on this entry come from Dale, the amazing photographer, who got to go on a field trip to a recycling center with his kids. 

  2. Taiwan, being a small island nation, wants to keep landfills to a minimum. As of 2006, 80% of trash go into incinerators

  3. This system of daily trash pickup rather than designated trash piles was started in Taipei in 1997

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