Forty kilometers west of Taipei on the rugged northwest coast, a cavernous warehouse under construction represents the new priorities for a nation 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 (佳龍科技), one of the nation’s biggest recyclers, will be able to securely store up to 149kg 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 (華碩), Acer Inc (宏碁) and HTC Corp (宏達電), produces more electronics per capita than any other country.
“Recycling became huge because of the electronics firms,” said Chen Wei-hsian (陳偉聖), secretary-general of the Formosa Association of Resource Recycling (台灣資源再生協會), an industry organization. “That’s why it’s grown from about 100 recycling outfits to over 2,000.”
Last year, waste companies had revenue of NT$65.8 billion (US$2.2 billion), according to the Industrial Development Bureau at the Ministry of Economic Affairs. That is up from NT$24.9 billion a decade earlier.
With gold accumulating in its vaults, Super Dragon is even considering a new venture, according to Ding Guo-tsuen (丁國村), 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.
Taiwan has one of the highest household recycling rates in the world, about 42 percent, up from 5 percent in 1998, according to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). 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 about 12.7 million tonnes.
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 space for places to dump waste started to run out.
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 (吳耀勳), 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.