The first time I heard the melodious 7-note bars wafting through the open window, my instincts informed me it was the ice-cream truck. But something didn't seem quite right. The truck lingered for a long time, it traveled each street, and there were several trucks doing the same business afternoons and evenings.
My hostel manager in Tainan made a big deal about recycling the garbage. "This year there is a city-wide movement to go green, to recycle everything, to reduce waste," she said as she rapidly rummaged through the garbage, sorting the paper from the plastic, the organic waste from the glass. With a cry of "I think I'm in time!" Emily rushed out the door hurrying after the singing truck. I was mildly impressed. That was when it dawned on me that she was hurrying after the garbage pick-up.
As the days roll by, I gradually recognize other differences in the way garbage is handled. Many of the truck drivers and handlers are female. They don't haul heavy loads to and fro either; on the contrary, businesses and homeowners bear the responsibility of carrying their own (pre-sorted) waste to the back of the truck.
In Taiwan, this makes imminent good sense. Firstly, business density is so high in commercial districts that owners actually alternate opening days. Cafe A opens Monday, Wednesday, Friday; while Cafe B is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Secondly, with owners bearing the responsibility for sorting their own waste, they can use different sized containers or plastic bags depending upon the amounts of accumulation; they may require a big container for plastics, but only a small one for glass bottles, for instance.
There are other benefits with the owner-take-charge garbage-hauling system. The sanitation workers don't need to worry about straining their backs hauling the trash; they can focus on directing the collection towards the proper recycle containers; and certainly, they don't need to worry about calling at each and every address (but the trucks do come by at least once a day with martial efficiency).
In an island with competing land development interests, Taiwan's Zero Waste and Recycling Promotion is an attempt to genuinely protect their limited land and resources with "Go-Green" philosophy. The Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Solid Waste website states:
The average amount of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) collected for disposal reached 0.520 kg per capita per day in 2008, which dropped by 50.74% from the peak value in 1998. The percentage of MSW that was properly disposed of increased from 60.17% in 1989 to 99.99% in 2008.
Taiwan's recycling programs include Lubricating Oil Recollection Stations (important considering the number of motor scooters), Awards for recycling assessments, and assisting vendors in taking charge of fulfilling recycling stipulations for electrical products. In fact, this island-nation's pro-active environmental intervention earned it 29th place among 132 nations for the World Economic Forum's 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), "ahead of Canada (37th), South Korea (43rd), Australia (48th), the US (49th), Singapore (52nd) and China (116th)" (EPM1502, February 2012). The Environmental Policy Monthly, an EPA circulator, explains the significance in ranking:
"Among a total of ten policy categories, which included 22 indicators, Taiwan came first in the categories concerning the impact of air quality on public health, the impact of water quality on public health, and forest conservation. Gaining top honors in these categories shows just how effective efforts to maintain air quality, manage water use, conserve forests, and ensure universal access to water and sanitary facilities have been." (EPM1502, February 2012).
Taiwan's pro-active approach towards waste collection includes providing for and setting solid waste goals. For instance, administrators' revision of regulations include new targets for lowering plastic packaging trays and boxes:
"The reduction target for hypermarkets and supermarkets for 2012 is now 40%. From 2013, the grouping together of items will mean a reduction target of 80% for plastic food packaging trays and boxes for eggs, fruit and vegetables, and bakery products." Excerpt from Environmental Policy Monthly, 15 (1)
The extent to which the entire community is involved is also truly admirable. Already the country is among the tidiest of nations, with most shop-keepers washing down the sidewalks every morning, and litter scarcely seen. One program on Da-Ai television channel showed how seniors have taken on volunteer work in recycling programs around the country, some donating as many as four hours per day picking up trash, sorting it, and transporting it to recycling facilities. In fact, here again, older women (who may have already been in the garbage collection business) are often taking the lead in organizing.
Neighbors collect and organize recyclables
As I travel around the country, more and more innovative ideas seem to be creeping out of the woodwork. For instance, take the Chunghua Post Offices, where instead of closing them down to save money, many have taken on additional banking services and leased out their floor space to vendors. Maybe the United States Postal Offices might take some cues before deciding to sell themselves off to franchises.
Caring for the land and serving the people takes on a special halo in a country particularly prone to earthquakes and typhoons. There simply are not a lot of public expenditures available when such disasters (with attending effects) can strike at any time. The Taiwan EPA is bent not only on educating and involving the public in appreciation of nature and conservation (part of many aboriginal cultural traditions), but also promoting new Environmental Science and Technology Parks (ESTPs), self-contained green industrial parks (Environmental Policy Monthly Vol. XIII:10).
Environmentalists at National Museum of Taiwan History
What I particularly like also about the Taiwan EPA is its ability to enmesh environmental regulations with progressive and traditional social values. Afterall, it takes more than just the local temple to promote sustainable development and support technological innovation in a land where every wind turbine, each solar panel, and most architectural facades require extra bracing for high wind and earthquake loads.
Boat tours to view salt-marshes at An-Ping
Still, I do have a bit of skepticism with regard to just how safe it is to use PVC bags in place of plastic containers for hot-food take-out items such as congee (zhou), or how soon travel mugs will catch on in a tropical country with tea-shops at every corner.
Quenching one's thirst no matter the paper cups
R.O.C. (Taiwan). Environmental Protection Administration, Executive Yuan. Environmental Protection Administration, 2012. <http://www.epa.gov.tw/EN/>.
Article and photography courtesy of Christine Kroll, P.E. Copyright March 2012. For reprints, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.