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Taiwan Resets To Green

Once heavily polluted, island reinvents itself as a leader in green practices and recycled materials

by Jean-François Tremblay
August 4, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 31

Formosa Plastics' site in Mailiao, Taiwan.
Credit: Formosa
Formosa says that its giant Mailiao complex is eco-friendly. The conglomerate claims that the fish farming industry thrives nearby. Some of the ponds are visible in the foreground.

To anyone who visited Taiwan in the 1980s, the idea that the island would ever be a model of sustainability and best environmental practices sounds ludicrous. Back then, public buses spewed thick gray and black smoke, and the Tamsui River, which runs through the capital city of Taipei, seemed to carry more industrial waste and household trash than water.


Population of the island of Taiwan: 23.3 million

Population density per square kilometer (U.S. = 14): 250

Per capita GDP in 2012: $20,400

Waste recycling rate, including energy recovery, in 2013 (1997 = 6%): 55%

Average weight of garbage generated per capita per day in 2013 (1997 = 2.4 lb): 0.9 lb

Increase in the weight of the garbage incinerated in Taiwan, 2003–13: 16%

Increase in the tonnage of PET plastic recycled in Taiwan, 2003–13: 47%

Average annual growth rate of Taiwan’s petrochemical industry, 2002–12: 6%

GDP = gross domestic product. PET = polyethylene terephthalate.
SOURCES: Taiwan EPA, Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs

Taiwan has changed a lot since then. Stricter regulation of vehicle emissions has improved air quality. The Tamsui, now only mildly polluted, is lined with bike paths. Industrial emissions are monitored, and recycling rates have shot up. Along with the change of attitude toward the environment, Taiwanese companies that pursue green businesses are flourishing.

Twenty-five years ago, local politicians routinely referred to Taiwan as “an island of garbage” where landfills overflowed with household trash and industrial waste was dumped all over. Today, Taiwan has not only brought pollution under control, but its environmental practices are also being emulated by others. Big industrial firms, although still viewed suspiciously, claim to be more environmentally friendly. Younger companies are turning Taiwan into a hotbed of innovation for products based on recycled materials.

“In our opinion, Taiwan is at the forefront of waste recycling, and particularly polymer recycling,” says Johann Boe­decker, a partner and marketing director at Miniwiz, a Taipei-based company that develops new ways to reuse materials—writ large. In a hip office where fixtures are made of recycled materials, the 40 or so young chemical, materials, and mechanical engineers, as well as architects and other experts at Miniwiz spend their time devising ways to make new objects out of used materials such as bottles, electric cables, and even wheat husks. Taiwan’s government is a major client.

An island the size of Maryland teeming with 23 million people, Taiwan doesn’t have land to spare for its waste. For this reason, the government instituted a ban on landfill disposal in 2007, according to Harvey J. Houng, an adviser to the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration. Since then, TEPA has promoted the view that trash is a resource.

Prior to joining TEPA in the early 1990s, Houng was head of the toxic substances program at Texas’s environmental protection agency. For Taiwan he created a program, launched in 1997, to monitor industrial waste. According to Houng, the program keeps track of all hazardous industrial waste and 90% of general industrial waste. Japan recently launched a program that emulates Taiwan’s, he asserts.

Taiwan has adopted other policies to address its waste problem. A recycling fund, also launched in 1997, charges producers and importers according to the amount of waste their products generate. At the household level, families are charged a handling fee for their nonrecyclable wastes. Together, the measures have reduced the amount of trash the average Taiwanese person generates daily from 2.4 lb in 1997 to 0.9 lb last year, according to TEPA.

Taiwan is now going one step further. It is the first country in the world where the government has crafted a master plan based on the cradle-to-cradle concept, Houng says. In 2002, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough published the influential book “Cradle to Cradle,” which promotes the design of products and buildings that have a positive environmental impact. The Taiwan plan embodies this concept; it encompasses reuse of resources, waste reduction, recycling, product redesign, energy recovery, and the use of incinerator waste for land reclamation.

The land reclamation program is controversial, acknowledges Tien-Chi Wu, director general of TEPA’s department of waste management. The government proposes that the ash resulting from incinerating household waste be used to reclaim land from the sea, increasing Taiwan’s landmass. Some people worry that putting this ash into the sea is not safe, a concern that Wu says is being taken seriously at TEPA.

Juei-ping Chen, secretary general of the Taiwan Environmental Information Association, an environmental group that employs about 40 people, agrees that proper ash disposal is a real problem. But Chen is already concerned that the ash is being used to manufacture concrete and as a filling material in road construction, and he isn’t convinced that using ash in land reclamation is the right solution. “Ash can be blown into farmers’ fields, or in streams, and we completely lose control of this waste,” he says.

Chen supports Taiwan’s efforts to promote the cradle-to-cradle concept, but he says the government should have started much earlier. Many manufacturers chafing against stricter environmental laws or in search of lower costs left Taiwan for China years ago, limiting the pool of companies that may be able to use one another’s waste as raw material, he says.

One company that maintains a strong presence in Taiwan is Formosa Plastics Group, one of the world’s largest chemical conglomerates. The firm embodies both Taiwan’s old industry-at-all-costs ways and its new green persona.

Four years ago, Formosa Chairman C. T. Lee apologized that the firm had polluted an industrial site near the southern city of Kaohsiung with chlorinated compounds and benzene. At the time, the company explained that its plants there, producing vinyl chloride and chlorinated fluorocarbons, were built about 60 years ago, before Taiwan adopted environmental protection standards. Remedial measures taken in subsequent years did not initially perform as expected, Formosa acknowledged. But nowadays the plant no longer pollutes, the firm insists.

In contrast, the company’s newer site in Mailiao, on Taiwan’s central west coast, was conceived with the overarching goal of limiting waste generation, says Sang-Chi Lin, a Formosa vice president in charge of environment, health, and safety. “At Mailiao, we don’t have to apologize for anything,” he says. “This complex is an ecological zone where the idea is to achieve zero waste.” The Mailiao site features an oil refinery, a large chemical complex, and a major power plant that sells electricity to the grid.

Judging by the protests that occur whenever Formosa announces plans to expand at Mailiao, the public in Taiwan is skeptical of the conglomerate’s claims of no environmental impact. Formosa fiercely defends itself against any charge that its facilities deliver less than world-class performance. Two years ago, it initiated a defamation lawsuit against a professor who contended that cancer rates had increased near Mailiao.

“The public’s demands are constantly increasing, so we’re under constant pressure to improve,” Lin says. Mailiao, he claims, has fewer flares than most other refining and chemical complexes of similar size. Moreover, according to Formosa statistics, Mailiao’s air emissions are far lower than what Taiwan requires and even lower than what the world’s chemical industry has defined as achievable with best available control technology.

Concurrent with its efforts in Mailiao, Formosa also has latched onto consumer interest in products made from recycled materials. The company now sells a variety of fibers made from used polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, says C. M. Hsu, an adviser on plastics manufacturing at Formosa’s Nan Ya Plastics unit.

In fact, demand for recycled fiber has been so robust that the growth of Formosa’s recycled fiber business is limited by the availability of used PET bottles from Taiwan, Hsu notes. To support its recycled fiber business, the firm imports plastic bottle flakes from Japan. The high-quality Japanese flakes are essential to producing the top grades of recycled fibers used by clothing brands such as Adidas and Columbia Sportswear, Hsu says.

Taiwan’s plastics industry generally views recycling as a major opportunity. “Big companies, like Dell for instance, want to use more recycled plastic,” says Hsiang-Jui Hsu, deputy manager of quality and environmental safety at the Plastics Industry Development Center, or PIDC. “With recent improvements in technology, plastic materials can be of really high quality now.”

With headquarters in the central city of Taichung and supported by the government and industry, PIDC aims to bolster the credibility of Taiwan’s recycling industries and help companies find opportunity abroad. For example, its Post-consumer Recycled Plastics Verification Platform assesses and certifies the recycled plastics content of products. The system, Hsu says, is helping position Taiwanese firms as reliable suppliers of recycled plastics. Some of Taiwan’s main competitors in plastic recycling are notorious for mislabeling new plastic as recycled, he says.

Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Yen and Boedecker show off some of Miniwiz’s raw materials.
Chris Yen and Johan Bodecker of Miniwiz.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Yen and Boedecker show off some of Miniwiz’s raw materials.

PIDC also offers advice to companies on what’s in demand internationally. And when needed, it provides technology that smaller firms can’t develop on their own.

Polylactic-acid-based plastics are a good example, according to Paul Chen, deputy manager for materials technology at PIDC. Made from sugar, PLA-based plastics are hard to recover when blended with materials such as PET, he explains. Moreover, they tend to degrade each time they are recovered. PIDC has developed a method to isolate PLA from other types of plastic. PIDC has also come up with a depolymerization process that turns PLA-based plastics into lubricants and antistatic additives when they become too used up for recycling. “PIDC has become a world leader in PLA recycling,” Chen claims.

Taiwan is well positioned to be at the forefront of the recycled plastics business because it used to be one of the world’s leading plastics producers, Miniwiz’s Boedecker says. “A lot of the polymer recycling infrastructure in Taiwan was repurposed from polymer manufacturers.”

Miniwiz considers itself adept at thinking up new ways to use old materials. Most recently, it collaborated with Nike on the design of NikeLab, a Nike store that opened this summer in several cities worldwide where the shelves and interior decoration are entirely made from repurposed materials.

Miniwiz’s other main business is supplying clients with innovative recycled materials. The company does so without manufacturing assets of its own. Rather, all production work is outsourced to third parties, mostly in Taiwan. “Recyclers usually don’t know what the market trends are,” Boedecker notes. In some cases, Miniwiz even imports trash when a reliable source cannot be found on the island.

The most successful recycled materials don’t replace new ones, notes Christopher Yen, a materials engineer at Miniwiz. “It’s difficult to launch a recycled material to replace something that is made from a virgin one and that developed to its current form over the course of perhaps hundreds of years,” he says. A better approach is to look at the function that a designer aims to achieve and identify a recycled material that can do the job, he says.

Other times, the company comes up with a new material and then looks for a market. For example, a few months ago, Miniwiz developed a technology for making plastic pellets out of the rubber that insulates high-voltage power cables. The material, cross-linked thermoset polyethylene, was typically incinerated after cables reached the end of their lives. The recovered plastic, which is flame resistant, may find use in the construction industry, Yen says.

Using new materials that have a low environmental impact is another way that manufacturers can improve their green credentials, claims Howard Lin, a vice president of DingZing, a Kaohsiung-based producer of thermoplastic polyurethanes. His company’s materials, which contain neither chlorine nor solvents, have less impact on the environment than competing polyvinyl chloride and thermoset polyurethanes, according to Lin. The company’s main buyers are foreign brands, such as Nike, that are keen to demonstrate their green bona fides, he adds.

During the past two years, DingZing has gone one step further in promoting the environmental advantages of its products. It formulated a new grade of polyurethane that is partly made with biobased materials. The product, which can be used in shoes, is now being evaluated by clients, Lin says.

DingZing’s push for green products illustrates the new mind-set that has developed in Taiwan during the past quarter-century. Government regulations meant to improve the quality of the air, land, and water have done their job in turning around the environmental mess that was Taiwan in the early 1990s. The regulations may have prompted some industrial producers to decamp for China. But others developed new businesses that are helping to make Taiwan a place where old products never die.  


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