Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) had some welcome news for city residents this week. On Tuesday, he announced the mandatory garbage bag fee, introduced almost 13 years ago, has been so successful that the volume of garbage has dropped 67 percent and the cost of the requisite bags would be reduced next month.
While the reduction is slight in terms of the cost to residents’ wallets, it will have a big impact on the city’s finances, with an estimated loss of about NT$70 million (US$2.3 million) annually. Nevertheless, that loss represents a positive for the city in terms of the improvement in its environmental protection efforts and quality of life, and Taipei’s residents should congratulate themselves.
Taipei was the first city in the nation — and one of few in the world — to introduce a fee for solid waste disposal when it made the use of special bags mandatory on July 1, 2000. The bag fee included the cost of garbage collection and treatment, which had previously been calculated based on the amount of tap water consumed per month and collected as part of residents’ water bills.
By making the cost of garage disposal directly visible, authorities aimed to reduce the amount of garbage and increase recycling rates. In tandem with the bag policy, recycling collection efforts were stepped up, and the collection of separated kitchen waste was also launched. Over the next few years the city expanded the list of home appliances that could be recycled and opened a recycled furniture showroom.
However, the trash reduction program was not just an effort to become more environmentally friendly — it was born out of dire necessity. The Fudekeng landfill in Wenshan District (文山) had been closed in 1994. A second landfill, at Shanchuku (山豬窟) in Nangang District (南港) was approaching saturation point in 2000 and trying to find sites for new landfills had become a political nightmare.
Protests over landfills had become increasingly vocal nationwide ever since the so-called “garbage war” erupted in Sinjhuang (新莊) in July 1992. Nor did the public want more incinerators. Taipei had three by 2000, in Neihu (內湖), Muzha (木柵) and Beitou (北投), part of the 25-plus incinerators the central government had planned for the nation.
Faced with ever-increasing amounts of trash and limited space, the authorities were getting desperate. That desperation forced Taipei and the central government to make a major shift from focusing on handling and treating garbage to reducing it at its source.
Within two years of the mandatory bag program’s introduction, waste disposal had fallen by 32.79 percent in Taipei and recycling had increased by 98.7 percent. The policy proved so successful that within a few years the city was able to change its goal for “Total Recycling, Zero Landfill” or “zero-burying” (零掩埋) from 2020 to 2010. It then met that goal.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing. There have been hiccups in the kitchen waste recycling efforts, the incinerators are now underutilized and landfill clean-up efforts have run into delays.
In addition, some residents still try to avoid using the mandatory bags or reduce the number they use by illegally dumping garbage. It is not uncommon to see people bringing small bags of trash from home, often late at night, and putting them into public trash cans or dropping them off near trash collection sites.
Therefore, calls to reduce the price of the mandatory garbage bags further, as some city councilors have pushed for, or to eliminate them altogether, a proposal raised in the 2010 Taipei mayoral race, are premature. It is obvious that some form of a carrot-and-stick approach will continue to be necessary. In addition, the city needs to fund its high-frequency trash collection and its disposal system, and the per bag charge is the most equitable of the options.
For now, though, a few cents saved each month on trash bags can serve as a reward for making Taipei a cleaner, more eco-friendly city.