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The Taiwanese housewives who sparked a recycling revolution

The inside story of how activists got government to clean up Taipei, by Michelle Winglee

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This photo captures Homemakers United in the early years after the group's formation in the late 1980s (Image by 主妇联盟环境保护基金会

It was 8.30pm on a balmy September evening in subtropical Taipei. A sea of neighbourhood residents poured out of a network of narrow crooked alleyways while the tune of Beethoven’s Fur Elise wafted through the air, growing louder as the main street drew nearer. Carrying bright blue plastic bags filled to the brim, with armfuls of bottles and cans, and buckets of kitchen scraps, they moved towards one destination: the rubbish truck.

This is how recycling is done in Taiwan. While households in other countries take out their rubbish when they chose, and normally only as far as their backyard, in Taipei people meet musical pick-up trucks at a designated time and neighbourhood corner.

It had taken me two weeks to figure out the time and spot of my local rubbish pick-up, as well as the motivation. While impressed by the system, I couldn’t help also asking a fellow neighbour "don’t you think this is kind of a hassle?”; and feeling slightly guilty when she replied, bag in hand: “No, we’re used to it. I’d rather have clean streets.”

In the latter half of the 20th century, Taiwan became known as one of the three  “Asian Tigers” for its impressive economic growth. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the by-products of that growth began forming littered heaps on street corners and “trash mountains” at the outskirts of cities.

Typhoon-prone Taiwan is particularly vulnerable to contamination from landfill sites that leak into soil and groundwater supplies. Steel factories and heavy construction in Taipei also cause significant air pollution, which reached its worst levels in the 1980s, according to Eugene Chien, Taiwan’s first Minister of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He noted that by the end of a work day, the white collars of office workers would be lined with soot.

In the 1990s, Taiwan, an island with the population of Australia but with less than 1% of its landmass, decided to construct incinerators to deal with the trash build-up, sparking public outcry about the chemical pollutants that would be released into the air.

Homegrown

A 50-year period of occupation by the Japanese, which ended in 1945, was followed by 38 years of martial law under the Chinese Nationalist Party, after which government restrictions in Taiwan against opposition groups gave way to the promise of democracy.

Less inhibited dialogues and freer right of assembly allowed for the growth of civil society and new non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were spawned – including a band of Taipei housewives who decided to take matters into their own hands and clean up their city.

Homemakers United began in 1987 as a roomful of women informally discussing their environmental concerns. In 1989 following a new law (the Taiwan Civil Associations Act) allowing the formation of NGOs, they played a key role in Taiwan’s grass roots environmental movements.

Their first meetings, started as a group of less than 10 women, many of whom were wives of Taiwan National University Professors. Most were well-off financially and had benefited from new educational opportunities made available by laws enacted in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I came to the realisation that you can clean the house all you want but you can’t stop pollution getting in," said Chen Manli, mother of two and former Homemaker United’s president, who joined the organisation in 1988.

Contrary to the traditional Chinese belief that a woman’s role is just in the home, the band of housewives took to the streets of Taipei and petitioned Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose a municipal recycling system.

“At first, the government officials thought what do these housewives know?”, said Ms Chen. However, determined and with a mother’s eye for detail, she and the other women brought statistics and even trash into EPA offices, proving that 40% of municipal waste could be recycled and 35% could be composted.

The EPA, newly created in 1987, passed legislation to hold businesses more accountable for the collecting and disposing of their non-degradable products in 1989.

However, while this was a significant move amidst vigorous opposition from the manufacturing and business community, regulation was spotty and the authorities remained sceptical that households would  participate in recycling separation, relying on “scavengers” to collect municipal bottles for recycling. 

Still, through educational campaigns around the city and in schools, Homemakers United proved them wrong.

Unity

“At first we were fighting against government officials now we’re on the same side,” said Ms. Chen, who noted that the time of butting heads with the government had past. Through relationship building with the EPA overtime and developing mutual respect, she found that officials were really listening. The tide turned in 1996  with the implementation of a new unified recycling fund and municipal recycling programme. 

Former Taiwan EPA director of the International Affairs Office, Justin Liang, who joined the EPA in 1989, acknowledged Homemakers United as one of the most important NGOs bringing change to the municipal waste management system.

"As time passed, enhanced public awareness of the environment and compromise by both the government and NGOs led to a more friendly and transparent system," said Liang.

In 1996, the EPA created a unified recycling fund, charging businesses a fee based on invoices of recyclable products. Money from the fund, also subsidised by the government, went to support a new municipal recycling program that relied on community residents, public cleaning teams, and official collectors.

Liang said that without the force of NGO groups, the EPA would not have had the same authority to pressure industry groups to adopt new reforms.

New model army

Taiwan’s recycling reforms have created new commercial opportunities for companies. Da Fon Environmental Technology, a private company that focuses on recycling plastic, paper, and metals, recorded a profit last year of around US$100 million (650 million yuan). Another company, Taiwan Recycling Corporation, created by two textile conglomerates, reuses the plastic from recycled bottles to manufacture textile products for carpet or fill for ski jackets.

Eugene Chien, Taiwan’s first EPA Minister (who devised “the polluter pays” policy back in 1989) said that the new recycling system did not happen overnight. It took a series of educational campaigns, coordination between local government departments, cooperation from industry, and the mobilisation of civil society.

It also took a “carrot and stick” approach. While providing monetary incentives for recycling collection, the EPA fined households and businesses that failed to comply.

Green horizons

Since this victory in 1996, when a new nationally implemented recycling policy was introduced, Homemakers United has been on the forefront of pushing for other kinds of change. In 1998 they started their own composting project, gathering 230 willing households, which grew to 600 before the Taipei City government agreed to oversee a compost project by the year 2000 – later becoming adopted by all of Taipei.

Today, Chen describes the role of the organisation as the impetus that pushes for changes to government policy as well as the watchdogs who keep the government accountable on a range of environmental issues.

In 2013-2014 they toured around Taiwan and ranked all 22 cities/counties with respect to environmental cleanliness, creating significant pressure on city mayors to prioritise environmental issues. The current campaign is to reduce wasteful consumption and packaged goods even before it hits the recycling system.

Cutting down its municipal waste by more than half from 1997-2011, Taiwan generates less waste per capita than most OECD member countries. The island also generates half as much waste per person as the US. Taiwan not only stands as an example of a successfully implemented recycling policy, but also a testament to how grassroots organising and government policies worked together to create Taiwan’s current recycling system.

 

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