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Taiwan Wages War Against Garbage

Taiwan does not like garbage and it does not like litterbugs. Through several innovative programs, the island's government is well on its way to eliminating both. With the help of its high-technology experts, Taiwan hopes to become a zero-waste society by 2020. The government says it already has eliminated 65 percent of its garbage and turned waste into recyclable, profitable goods.

A bone-crushing sound is what most people expect to hear when their garbage gets picked up. They usually do not expect to hear music. But, that is exactly what people in Taiwan's major cities hear.

Waste management expert Harvey Houng in Taipei says when people hear the garbage serenade, they pick up their bags and deposit them directly in the truck.

"The people they will know when they hear the music,” he said. “They know the collecting truck is coming. Basically, they have a pretty good idea about when and where the truck is coming."

So, unlike most other cities in the world, garbage rarely ends up on the streets of Taipei. Mr. Houng taught at the University of Texas in Houston for many years before being summoned by the Taiwan government to advise it on how to control the island's runaway garbage problem.

"We have quite a dense population here in Taiwan, especially in Taipei,” he explained. “Most of the people are living in high-rise buildings. I still remember back 10 years ago when I came back here, people piled up all the trash in front of their buildings and at that time they were joking that Taipei city was a city of garbage."

Well, no more. Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency embarked on an ambitious program to turn things around. Four years ago, the Taipei city government implemented a "fee per package" policy. Under this system, residents use designated trash bags to collect their garbage. Since people pay a fee for each bag, Mr. Houng says residents have found ways to reduce the amount of trash they produce and this, in turn, has bolstered recycling efforts.

"Then people, they can separate those recyclable material from the regular garbage. And, for those recyclable material, they do not have to pay,” he added. “They do not have to buy the specific bag for those recyclable materials. In other words, they will save money. There are financial incentives involved here."

The program appears to be working. In the past three years, Taipei has reduced the quantity of garbage it generates by 65 percent. This also has stimulated a whole industry of goods manufactured from recyclable materials, such as paper, bottles, and aluminum cans. Another plus is the electricity generated from the garbage sent to incinerators.

The city also appears to be winning a war against litterbugs. It has installed video cameras on street corners to monitor its citizens.

Those caught throwing garbage on the street are fined between $30-$150.

Even businesses are involved in the effort to control waste.

Walking into the Chinese kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Taipei Hotel feels like walking into the den of a fire-breathing dragon. Stewarding Manager, James Lee, acts as a guide, and explains the work of chefs laboring at large, steaming frying pans, or woks.

"They say now just opening hour. So, there are not so many wok working together. They have six wok. When the six wok work together, it will be a very, very exciting feeling," he explained.

This is where the Chinese and Western-style kitchens work day and night to prepare food for about 2,000 hotel guests every day.

Some food, even the most delicious, eventually ends up as garbage. The hotel employs six people who rotate shifts 24 hours a day to collect and sort the garbage. There are different bins for recyclable goods and for dry garbage. Mr. Lee opens a big freezer where the wet or food garbage is kept.

"From here, you cannot get any smelling from the spoilage or the wet garbage," said Mr. Lee.

Except of course when when you open the freezer.

"Yes. We keep all the smell inside and keep it cold…. And, also some plastic over there," he said. "We do have the separation over there. And, paper. We do have section by section."

An outside contractor comes very early every morning to pick up the garbage. He sells the recyclable items to companies that turn them into usable goods. The wet garbage is sold to farmers who use it for compost or for feeding their pigs. Very little goes to waste - which is exactly what the government wants.