c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Twenty-five miles west of here on Taiwan’s rugged northwest coast, a cavernous warehouse under construction represents the new priorities for an island where the streets were once littered with piles of discarded electronics and other refuse.
At the clean and tidy construction site, building materials are stacked neatly and even workers’ cigarette butts are carefully collected. The surroundings are designed to evoke a Roman villa, with lagoon, garden and canopies. The energy-saving shade tiles are made out of old CDs, DVDs and computer motherboards.
It is the latest expansion effort in a vast industrial park that recycles electronics, glass, plastics, paper and just about anything than can be reused or mined for materials. When the warehouse project is complete, Super Dragon Technology, one of the island’s biggest recyclers, will be able to securely store up to 330 pounds of gold and other precious metals.
Trash is valuable here — the byproduct of a world now dependent on technology. Taiwan, which is home to a host of technology companies like Asus, Acer and HTC, produces more electronics per capita than any other country.
“Recycling became huge because of the electronics firms,” said Chen Wei-Hsian, the secretary general of the Formosa Association of Resource Recycling, an industry organization. “That’s why it’s grown from about 100 recycling outfits to over 2,000.”
In 2012, waste companies had revenue of 65.8 billion Taiwan dollars, or $2.2 billion, according to the Industrial Development Bureau at the Ministry of Economic Affairs. That is up from 24.9 billion Taiwan dollars a decade earlier.
With gold accumulating in its vaults, Super Dragon is even considering a new venture, according to Ding Guo-tsuen, the company’s chief technical officer.
“We are thinking about changing to a precious metals trading business, because we can make pure gold at about 99.99 percent,” said Ding, adding that the company could apply to the London Bullion Market Association, a trade organization focused on the gold and silver market. “We have some great inventory.”
The commercial efforts, along with a government fund and increased consumer awareness, have helped clean up the country.
The country has one of the highest household recycling rates in the world, roughly 42 percent, up from 5 percent in 1998, according to Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration. The development bureau estimates that the rate for industrial waste — the bulk of the country’s total — was about 80 percent last year, amounting to roughly 14 million tons.
The industry was born out of necessity.
In the boom days of the 1980s and 1990s, factories in Taiwan made products as varied as plastic umbrellas and high-tech electronics for the rest of the world. As production soared, the land-poor island of 23 million people began running out of places to dump its waste.
Mountains of fetid household waste rotted in the streets. Public and disused spaces became dumping grounds for some of the toxic waste from the industrial boom.
At the time, infrastructure to tackle the problem barely existed. Large-scale, commercial waste-processing facilities were scant. Few households recycled. And pulling valuable materials from scrapped technology was dangerous. Wu Yao-hsun, the chairman of Super Dragon Technology, says he believes he got cancer from the toxic processes used to extract gold, silver and other precious metals from the country’s discarded electronics.
“In the old days, nobody knew the dangers. They just knew there was money inside,” said Wu, who is now cancer-free. “The environmental problems were also huge. But the research and infrastructure were lacking. We had to modify our own machinery.”
With trash and toxic materials accumulating, public anger simmered over how local governments should deal with the problem. At the same time, a growing army of social activists, buoyed by the island’s first free presidential elections, demanded higher standards of living from a government that had focused on economic growth at any cost.
“There were mountains of trash on the streets,” said Yeh Chun-hsien, the president of the Chung Tai Resource Technology Corp., a recycling company based in Taipei. “The government had to do something.”
In 1998, the government set up a fund to encourage recycling and reduce waste. Producers and importers now pay a fee based on the cost of collecting and recycling 33 types of goods, like glass, plastic, paper, aluminum containers, tires, batteries and electronics. With the money, Taiwan’s environmental agency then issues rebates to recycling companies.
“We spend about 6 billion dollars each year on subsidies to the recycling companies, which pay collectors, who then pay the residents. But it’s the incentives and the public educational programs that are key for our success,” said Lee Shou-chien of the Environmental Protection Administration’s Recycling Fund Management Board. He added that for many people, recycling had become “a daily habit they are accustomed to.”
The government also started the Taoyuan Environmental Science and Technology Park, the industrial complex where Super Dragon is building its third warehouse. The park offers incentives for recyclers of glass, plastic and electronics that use advanced technologies and invest in research and development to increase the island’s reuse rates.
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“You are literally selling trash to people, so you have to think, who would do that without a clear efficiency benefit?” said Arthur Huang, founder of Miniwiz Sustainable Energy Development, which designed Super Dragon’s facility.
Miniwiz, based in Taipei, is an architecture and product design firm that turns trash, including electronic waste, into products like cellphone cases, wine bottle holders and fire-resistant construction materials.
Over the years, the industry, once largely made up of small and dangerous backyard operations, has developed its own high-tech expertise.
Chung Tai Resource Technology, which recycles glass and highly toxic chemicals like phosphorus and mercury, relied on European machinery when it opened in 2001.
Yeh said the company had since refined the equipment to improve the process, developing a system to turn 95 percent of the mercury and other waste from lighting products into raw materials. Super Dragon has developed a processing technology that semiconductor makers use to spray superthin films onto their silicon wafers.
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Manufacturers have also come to realize the value in their trash.
Companies like Chung Tai, one of the island’s largest light manufacturers, uses its own industrial waste as raw materials for new products. Others are selling their valuable waste to recyclers.
“The electronics companies have a better idea about precious metals in their waste,” Ding of Super Dragon said. “When the gold price jumped to $1,800 to $1,900 an ounce, they got savvier about what they were throwing away. They used to pay us to pick up their refuse — now we pay them to collect it.”
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The advances have spread beyond technology waste.
At the W hotel in the Xinyi District of Taipei, staff members wanted a solution for disposal of the 300,000 plastic water bottles the hospitality business churns through each year. Working with a group of local designers who had been awarded grants from the Taipei city government, the hotel is having the bottles turned into coasters, games and key- and change-holders for use throughout the property.
“Sustainability in our business is somewhat of an oxymoron,” said Cary Gray, the general manager at the W Taipei. “But it makes perfect sense to use it as a way to engage our community. There’s a level of education, awareness and social responsibility in this city, and the government is highly supportive of creative industries. People have embraced this culture.”