In 2017, a report shined a spotlight on Taiwan, a small island in East Asia where I grew up. By analysing the world recycling data, Eunomia, an independent consultancy based in the UK, declared that Taiwan is the world number two in terms of the effective recycling rate, slightly behind Germany, the world champion. Globally, the average daily waste each of us produces is around 1.2kg. This small island, with 23.5 million people, produced roughly 0.4kg of waste per day in 2015, compared to 1.14kg in 1997. The report generated a lot of media coverage back then in the UK as England only got the 18th place in the league table, but Wales was world number 3.
“Was Taiwan not used to be the world’s factory, making all the low-priced goods?” you wondered. So what did Taiwan do to become one of the world leaders in recycling?
For a country that put all the effort into economic growth in the 70s, “sustainability” was unheard of, protecting the environment was a very low priority. But all changed at the turn of the 21st century.
In 2000, Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, was facing an imminent waste-disposal crisis when the city’s two landfill sites were near capacity, and the incinerators were on maintenance. The city mayor was under pressure to come up with a policy that would work to tackle the impending catastrophe. A new waste fee was introduced. For years, the residential waste fees were included in the household water utility bill, but from July 2000, it was paid through the purchase of government-controlled bin liners. The bigger the bin liner, the higher the fee you need to pay per bag (between GBP 3p and £1 per bag). City authorities believed in this way, people would be encouraged to think before they bin.
Besides the new waste fee, city residents were required to implement an ever-complex recycling system, separating various types of paper by colour, bottles by material, plastic bags, containers and food waste, all required to be left in various collection bins when the waste collection trunks arrived at a certain time of the day.
What the system called for was a radical change of human behaviour overnight. Despite the widespread scepticism from different political parties, the new scheme took off and was an immense success and soon rolled out to all other major cities in Taiwan. This green revolution is still ongoing and is worth shouting out for the world to know.
In summer 2019, I took part in the first-ever “sustainability in wine” panel discussion in Taipei, along with other Taiwanese wine experts. We covered various issues and as a country that focuses so much on recycling, naturally, one topic was about wine bottle recycling.
Wine importers in Taiwan have to pay a “green tax” when they import bottled wines into the country. Businesses in hospitality will have these empty wine bottles collected by private recycling companies dealing with commercial waste. But what happens to recycled wine bottles? What is their destiny?
Taiwan’s annual glass recycling volume is about 150,000 metric tons (equivalent to 240 million 750ml wine bottles). Similar to what most countries do, when these empty bottles reach the recycling site, they will be mechanically sorted by colour, followed by a magnetic separation process to remove metal materials, such as crown caps and screw caps. The next step is to crush them into small pieces and wash them to remove any impurities, such as labels and foils. Finally, the crushed glass will go through a vibrating screening process to be classified according to particle sizes and turn into glass sand (silicon dioxide).
At this stage, they are transformed into reusable resources. To be made into the desired glass vessels, such as wine bottles, they will melt the glass sand at a high temperature. The entire process is extremely energy-intensive and the financial reward for recycling companies is extremely meagre.
For example, the Taiwanese government subsidises waste companies 5p/kg to process waste clear glass containers, but the latter pays 3.9p/kg for private recycling companies to collect the waste for them. And the darker the glass colour, the lesser the subsidies companies will get. This is because these coloured bottles have lower purity, and require the most extensive process.
If relying on government funding alone, waste companies are unlikely to survive. To make the business more sustainable, what these companies do is to upcycle, for example, by turning the regenerated materials into ceramic tiles, building materials, asphalt and energy-saving bricks and get the profit through selling them.
How about wine labels and corks? Unfortunately, they end up in incinerators. Even the aluminium foil on wine bottles faces the same destiny as those used for sealing bottles are mostly not pure aluminium but contain plastic components with no recycling value. Natural corks, in theory, can be composted, but the large majority of people in the cities, where the wine consumptions are higher, live in flats with no space for composting.
Glass bottles are heavy, and recycling workers get injured more easily when dealing with glass waste compared to other materials and it consumes a great deal of energy at production and recycling processes. One can’t help but wonder if glass bottles are the best containers for wine?
The wine consumption per capita in Taiwan is merely 1.06 L/per head, whereas the world’s number one, Portugal, drinks 62 times more. The wine market in Taiwan is growing but is far from mature. People drink less but drink well. Wines bottled in glass are considered better quality. It is thus a challenging task to talk about alternative and/or eco-friendly wine packaging such as aluminium cans, recycled PET and BIB at this stage, as they are associated with lower quality in comparison.
But think positively, if in 2000, the Taiwanese could radically change their behaviour by doing complex recycling, maybe it is not as strenuous as we imagine for people to accept alternative packaging in the future. I only hope that we won’t wait for another crisis to come before we finally make a change.