Should we have the right to unlimited garbage collection? Taiwan became a world leader in waste reduction and recycling by using a pay-as-you-waste citizen engagement model that reimagined trash as a civic duty.
Taiwan had a serious garbage problem.1 In 1996, two-thirds of the island’s landfills were approaching or already at full capacity and the City of Taipei had a garbage collection rate of a mere 70%, meaning the remaining 30% got burned or illegally dumped.5 The city of Taipei was filthy and citizens were protesting.5 Corner dumpsters overflowed with trash, rats infested the streets, and the city infamously smelled horrible.1
In the 1980s, Taiwan’s EPA devised a new pickup system which maintains convenience while also incentivizing people to separate their own waste, to produce less garbage and to recycle more. Very few public spaces have public garbage bins.4 But in Taipei, In Taipei, trash and recycling trucks stop five nights a week on more than 4,000 corners.2 When they stop, they play the classic melody “Für Elise” to summon the neighborhood.2 People sort their own garbage and recycling into the appropriate receptacles on the truck and face steep fines for sorting incorrectly.1 Recycling and compost is free but garbage is pay-as-you-waste: it requires government-sanctioned blue bags with official seals and assigned weight limits.1 Available behind the counter at convenient stores,2 they range from 3 to 120 liters, the most popular, 25, costs about $5.60 USD for a pack of 20.1
The program was complemented by a civic-environmental educational component in public schools from Kindergarten through High School.4 Dr. Eugene Chien, former minister of Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration and one of the designers of the program said, “If you tell the adults that they must separate the garbage, they get mad with you…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.”4
Between 1997 and 2011, Taipei’s recycling rate shot from less than 6% to 67%, making it a world leader in recycling with a thriving recycling industry.3 In 2014, according to the Taiwanese Institute for Sustainable Energy, the average Taiwanese citizen produced less than half of the kilos of trash per day as the average American.4 (Taiwan Watch Institute claims that the EPA inflates its numbers somewhat.)5
With slight renegotiations of the common social contract’s model for garbage collection and sorting–by making garbage a daily civic duty–and with pay-as-you-waste garbage, cities can dramatically produce their environmental impacts.