Taiwan’s Recycling Revolution: Lessons for Canada

Here’s an article I wrote for the Geopoliticalmonitor that involved a fairly intense data-collecting process. It represented the first time I’ve ever needed to compose a Chinese email to a Taiwanese NGO.

Taiwan’s Recycling Revolution: Lessons for Canada / Geopoliticalmonitor / 2013

Taiwan and Canada, two countries on opposite sides of the planet: one has reduced its per-capita daily waste by 57.5% from 1998 to 2010, a period which coincided with 47% GDP growth, and the other continues to churn out more waste per capita than any of its global peers. How they got to be on opposing sides of the problem/solution line merits some consideration, especially if Canadian cities are ever going to get serious about waste reduction.

Of all the obvious differences between the two, it’s geography that looms the largest. Taiwan is a mountainous island roughly the size of the Netherlands, with most of its 23 million people packed into five coastal cities. Canada’s population of 35 million inhabits the second-largest country in the world, and this vast amount of space has entrenched a myth of abundance in the Canadian political imagination, that of abundant water, forests, minerals, arable land, and most recently oil as well.

It was geography that pushed waste disposal to the top of the political debate in Taiwan during the 1980s. After a decade of explosive economic growth, the island was running out of places to dump its waste. Existing landfills, like Neihu’s ‘garbage mountain’ on the outskirts of Taipei, were at overcapacity and pressing up against major population centers.

The Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency (TEPA) responded to mounting political pressure by drafting up a plan to build 21 large incinerators throughout Taiwan in 1990, and an additional 15 in 1996. But this was not the type of solution that the Taiwanese public had in mind. The incinerator plan came up against a groundswell of environmental opposition. Grassroots organizations petitioned the government and staged protests up and down the island, voicing their firm opposition to incinerators on the basis of community health and environmental protection. The government finally relented in 2003 and adopted a ‘zero waste policy’ as the central tenet of its waste reduction strategy.

Ten years later, of the 26 large-capacity incinerators that were actually built, 2 of them are currently offline due to grassroots legal challenges and the remaining 24 are operating at around 72% total capacity.

There’s just not enough trash for them to burn.

This dramatic turnaround can be attributed in large part to TEPA’s ‘4-in-1’ recycling program. The program’s eponymous pillars consist of waste generators (the community), collectors and recyclers, local governments, and a national recycling fund to grease the fiscal gears.  Since the plan was first implemented in 1997, daily waste has been reduced from 1.14 kg/person in 1997 to 0.4 kg/person in 2011. By way of contrast, the average Canadian citizen produced 2.1 kg/person of daily waste in 2009.

That’s a big difference. It’s also a relatively short period of time for so pronounced a change in personal habits, both of which attest to the effectiveness of the 4-in-1 Program’s approach of incentivizing waste reduction and recycling programs using subsidies.

In Taiwan, economic incentives start at the community level in order to reduce waste and maximize recycling at the source. Several Taiwanese cities have introduced “Pay-as-You-Throw” (PAYT) schemes where collection agencies only accept waste in government-branded garbage bags, though recyclables and organic waste are always accepted. This puts the economic onus on Taiwanese citizens; the better they are at separating recyclables from waste, the more money they save on garbage bags. Some studies estimate that this PAYT scheme alone reduced waste production in certain Taiwanese cities by around 28.3% between 1999 and 2003.

Several Canadian municipalities have launched their own PAYT programs. Nanaimo B.C. operates one in which residents must put $2 tags on any additional garbage bags being collected, and Toronto implemented a volume-based rate structure for residential waste collection in 2008, which, according to a March 2013 report by the municipal Solid Waste Management Services, “has been responsible for the largest part of a customer’s behavioral change” in respect to the amount of garbage they produce.

Given the obvious benefits of linking individual waste habits to economic incentive, it follows that PAYT programs will continue to proliferate across Canada. But Taiwan’s success wasn’t built on PAYT programs alone. There’s another part to the story, albeit one that is anathema to certain reaches of the Canadian political spectrum.

The foundation of Taiwan’s 4-in-1 Program is a national recycling fund that is directly financed by manufacturers and importers seeking to do business in Taiwan. The logic used to determine the fees they pay is deceptively simple: manufacturers must pay the difference between the cost of collecting and recycling their product, and the revenues generated by selling any recovered resources. However, the actual calculations can be quite complex since they also take into account externalities and associated environmental cleanup costs.

Taiwan’s recycling fund is an example of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in action, because producers in Taiwan are financially on the hook for the recyclability of their products. Producers also have an economic incentive to innovate, because if they “go green” they can pay lower fees and offer a more affordable product.

The recycling fund pays some of this money out in the form of subsidies to recyclers and private collectors, thus injecting an economic impetus into community waste reduction efforts and creating space for private sector specialization. In an attempt to explain why Toronto had missed its “Target 70%” waste reduction goals, a recent Toronto Works report cited the considerable challenge posed by labor-intensive tasks like disassembling padded furniture.  However, if something akin to Taiwan’s recycling fund were instituted, private collectors would have an economic incentive to collect and disassemble the furniture themselves before presenting the materials to a recycling facility for a fee.

Herein lies one of the main strengths of Taiwan’s recycling fund: it anticipates the massive logistical complexity of the recycling process and strives to foster public-private partnerships geared towards the singular goal of waste reduction. It does not attempt to envelope the entire process into a bewildered and cash-strapped public bureaucracy.

Ontario residents are familiar with this kind of scheme, albeit in a neutered form. The provincial government introduced ‘eco fees’ on a wide range of products in 2010, only to revoke them after a consumer backlash. At the time, the fees were treated as an additional tax and not factored into the original sticker price by producers, much to the consternation of both consumers and the McGuinty government. As of April 2013, the Ontario government intends to try again. It is tabling new legislation that will force producers to incorporate eco fees into their pricing models, effectively obscuring them from the tax-wary gaze of Ontario consumers.

While it could be argued that this is a step in the right direction, there’s reason to believe that Ontario’s approach won’t succeed in matching the results of Taiwan’s 4-in-1 Program. For one, Ontario is one of many provinces in Canada, all advancing their own byzantine approach to waste disposal. If an Ontarian consumer wants to circumvent eco fees, they need only cross a provincial border. The limited provincial scope is also a hassle for producers who now have to adjust their pricing on a provincial basis, and it also foregoes the recycling-side economies of scale and efficiencies that could result from federal-level organization. Secondly, the program makes no attempt to incentivize private recycling collection, which could dramatically increase the collection rates of electronic waste products and potentially alleviate the disparity between urban residential and multi-residential recycling rates.

Some will balk at the possibility of federal involvement in what has traditionally fallen under the scope of provincial control, but here again the Taiwanese example can be instructive. Although the recycling fund inflow stems from fees levied at the federal level, its outflow is directed at local governments, recycling industries, and community organizations. In other words, though the fundraising, leadership, and regulation all come from the top, the legwork and heavy lifting are done at the local level.

As the fetid peaks of Neihu’s garbage mountain have eroded to the point that now there is a city park where an environmental abomination once stood, Canadians have quietly gone on building their own mountains of trash. But with a tax-free and bureaucracy-averse approach to waste reduction staring us in the face,isn’t it about time that changed?

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