Garbage Island

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Garbage Island.

The nation of Taiwan once had a waste problem so extreme the world nicknamed it Garbage Island. Trash bags stuffed with unimaginably smelly refuse were piled story high in the middle of city streets and sidewalks, and created a veritable feast for rats and pests. Disease thrived. Taiwan was turning into a giant landfill.

Today, if you were to walk around the capitol of Taipei (or really anywhere else in the country), you would think I was insane for telling you how problematic this was. Taiwan is now pristine. It is a struggle to find a waste bin outside at all. And yet there is no litter. That’s because the Taiwanese have a new mantra: “no trash touches the ground.”

How did Taiwan change so dramatically for the better?

Because Taiwan developed a waste management system that completely revolutionized how we think about trash pick up.

Five days a week, residents check an app which tells them the location and ETA of their waste management truck, and the residents prepare themselves accordingly. When the trucks approach their block, the residents walk outside with their trash from the day.

The first truck to arrive collects landfill trash, followed by another truck, which sorts and collects recyclables. This truck even has a bin for compost, separating raw food materials for fertilizer and cooked food materials to feed livestock. Volunteers stand by, ready to help the citizens sort their materials appropriately and the process is surprisingly efficient. Before you know it, the streets are quiet again, but clean.

Why is this so effective?

This policy really drives home the concept that there is no such thing as “away.” Every item discarded goes somewhere, be it to a landfill, incinerator, or shipped offshore for developing nations to deal with, often times with less consideration for the environment because they simply do not have the resources or capitol to process it safely. This was the case in Taiwan. Only 20 years ago, 90% of all municipal waste was going to landfill, and by 1990s, Taiwan’s landfills were at capacity. People were getting sick.

The Taiwanese had enough. They quickly realized that by individually processing every item they are discarding almost daily, they had to take accountability for their refuse. Every single item thrown away has to be accounted for and sorted. For some, there even developed a sense of competition to see who can produce the least amount of waste.

It is so easy to just finish a bottle of water and toss it in a plastic trash bag. The trash bag eventually gets full, we take it outside, and it seems to just disappear the next day. What if didn’t? What if we were stuck with our waste? What if we had to constantly look at it, knowing it would never biodegrade in our lifetime. This is the mentality we need to embrace if we want to be sustainable nation. Actually, this is the mentality we need to embrace if we want to survive as a species.

There is no “away.”

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