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Reworking Our Recycling Strategy

Big Picture

The United States is a world leader in countless areas — and not always good ones. We top the charts in the amount of waste generated as a country, producing about 12% of the world's total waste while only representing four percent of its population. And Taiwan, previously dubbed "Garbage Island," is now considered one of the global leaders in recycling strategy. The island country has made seriously impressive improvements in its waste management systems. As a result of recent policies, the waste generated per person in Taiwan decreased even during one of the country's most rapid phases of industrialization and economic growth. Taiwan's success story — an example of how economic performance and effective waste management aren't mutually exclusive — should be one that the U.S. aspires to replicate. 

Operative Definitions

  1. Waste Management: Includes collecting, transporting and disposing of waste; monitoring and regulating how much waste is generated; and reusing and recycling waste. 

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. In 2019, Taiwan held a 55% collection rate of trash from households and a 77% collection rate from industrial waste.

  2. The recycling rate in Taiwan increased from 5.87% to 55% after implementing its 4-in-1 Recycling Program.

  3. Surveys show that there is a lack of clear recycling guidelines in America, as evidenced by a high percentage of survey respondents who struggled to answer questions on what, specifically, is recyclable in the United States. 

  4. The top five reasons that Americans don’t recycle are lack of convenient access, lack of space in the home for extra bins, lack of time to separate recyclables, lack of adequate information regarding recycling and laziness.  

  5. Varying by state, there are generally only five categories of recyclable items in the U.S. (glass, plastic, paper, metal and e-waste), while there are 13 in Taiwan. 

  6. According to the latest available data,  an average of 0.4 kg of waste is generated daily per person in Taiwan, whereas the U.S. “boasts” a staggering 2.3 kg of generated trash per citizen daily.

Eight-Point Plan

(1) Collaborate with Taiwan and other countries that show remarkable waste management. 

Since clumsy recycling policies can hamper economic growth, it's important to look to nations, such as Taiwan, that have implemented successful changes without compromising their economies. By thoroughly examining these policies, including comparative research and talking with foreign authorities, the U.S. can gain valuable knowledge that can be used to create policies appropriate to America. 

(2) Increase the number of recyclable item categories.

In Taiwan, even food wastes are separated into two categories (raw foods and cooked foods). The U.S. should increase its number of recyclable item categories. For example, bubble wrap and styrofoam cannot currently be recycled in America. However, they can be repurposed by people and businesses. 

(3) Create a platform where recycled items can be purchased at a reduced price. 

This generates a new revenue stream for the government. It also gives citizens and businesses an incentive to purchase reused items instead of generating more waste by buying new and more expensive products (that end up being thrown out afterward).

(4) Adopt and modify Taiwan's Pay As You Throw (PAYT) program and print two QR codes on the bags. 

The PAYT program mandates that government-issued bags, which can be purchased at any corner store, are required to package all non-recyclable trash. While the cost of the bags should be modified based on location, this program creates motivation for people to comply with the recycling policies (and avoid having to pay extra for the bags to package non-recyclable waste). Individuals or a community representative must register their contact information using QR codes for the trash to be collected. In cases where a building consists of multiple units, the second code can be used to register individual units’ information for more convenient tracking.

(5) Spread awareness. Studies have shown that uncertainty about what can and cannot be recycled is one of the top reasons people don't recycle. Creative actions, such as holding competitions for artists to create eye-catching pamphlets or posters with clear guidelines, could help spread this information to more people. Additionally, providing facts about climate change and how recycling can support the slowing of its devastating effects may incentivize some to comply with recycling policies. 

(6) Require property sellers and renters to provide a free recycling bin and a factsheet of recycling guidelines upon signing contracts. Making these resources readily available for new homeowners makes it much more likely they'll comply with policies. It also takes away the obstacle of having to buy an extra bin for recycling. 

(7) Incentivize recycling facilities to make changes necessary to process additional item categories. Not all facilities have the capacity to process all types of recyclable waste. The government should provide both immediate and long-term financial rewards, including one-time grants for each additional category and reduced fees for rent and electricity, for facilities that choose to change their systems to accommodate more item categories. 

(8) Harshen punishments for non-compliance. We impose fees for speeding, improper parking, loitering, and failing to shovel snow and ice. Why not consistently failing to recycle? Using the QR codes on the trash bags from the PAYT program, violators should be fined at varying rates based on the number of times they've been caught violating the new guidelines. 

Why This Initiative Is Important

The U.S. doesn't have the best environmental record, to say the least. As one of the top polluters in the world, it needs to curtail its devastating environmental impact. Taiwan's success story is a perfect role model for the U.S. to follow. 

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author. 


Environmental Protection Agency. “Recycling Regulations in Taiwan and the 4-in-1 Recycling Program”. Environmental Protection Agency, October 2012, pp. 1-3. 

Rapid Transition Alliance. “Story of Change: Taiwan’s Transition — Garbage Island to Recycling Leader”. Rapid Transition Alliance, 18 June 2019.

Reuters. “Taiwan Says It Did Not Receive WHO Meeting Invite, Issue Off the Table For Now”. Reuters, 18 May 2020.

Waste360. “Covanta Survey: ‘Americans Don’t Know How to Recycle’”, Waste360, 23 April 2019.

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