In the parking lot of a small tenement block on the edge of Taipei City, Dzeng Wen painstakingly picks through trash, sorting plastics from paper and food scraps from general waste.
To the casual observer the dirty job could be an example of an environmentally aware neighbor doing a good turn. But the daily recycling routine has a financial motive pressed upon citizens by the authorities.
Dzeng's tenement block was one of the first to be hit with a fine, of NT$6,000 (US$193), for failing to separate recyclables from general household trash.
The married mother of two and her fellow residents now forensically examine other people's trash for signs of offending items to avoid a repeat fine.
"I have always been careful by trying to throw out less trash and make sure that most of it can be recycled," Dzeng said. "But it takes everyone to try otherwise the environment will suffer, and I will end up having to pay more fines for others' inconsiderate behavior."
The scheme introduced in April is part of an ambitious government plan to slash household non-recyclable waste from 80 percent of garbage to 25 percent by 2020.
Some 10 cities and counties have been slapping fines of between NT$1,200 to NT$6,000 on violators who must classify trash into three categories: ordinary garbage, recyclable garbage and food scraps -- before they are taken out to waiting garbage trucks and are inspected by trash collectors.
The program is scheduled to be expanded to all 25 cities and counties nationwide next year.
The initiative is designed to create a more desirable living environment but ultimately to stem the rising level of trash that is threatening the quality of life for the nation's 23 million inhabitants.
Despite introducing recycling schemes in the mid-1990s, many residents have failed to support the policy, unlike Dzeng and other vigilant citizens.
Recycled garbage only accounts for 20 percent of annual waste from households or businesses from a total of 6 million tonnes last year.
A combination of apathy and rapid economic growth has put environmental concerns on the back burner.
"Generally speaking the environmental situation on the island is getting worse," a source at the non-governmental Taiwan Environmental Protection Union said.
"People are using more energy than ever and are being ever more wasteful because they choose economic growth over environmental protection," the sources said.
More than 50 years of rapid economic development have resulted in a booming consumer culture fueled by Taiwan's younger generation, who have only known prosperity and seem determined to enjoy the nation's riches on their own terms.
Buying the latest fashions and gadgets from the US and Japan may be a necessity for social acceptance, but the price is a ballooning mountain of waste.
Scant space and full landfill sites have forced the government to seek new measures.
Taiwan has 200 landfills which are expected to be full in two years, the Environment Protection Administration says. Then the nation will be dependent on more incinerators.
They already manage two-thirds of non-recycled waste -- notorious for emitting toxic fumes that have proved unpopular with residents.
Taipei's environmental successes are often credited to the mayor, Ma Ying-jeou (
Now Taipei's refuse production has dropped by 54 percent, Chen Yeong-ren (
He said forcing residents to pay for translucent non-reusable bags in 2000 also helped cut down on the total waste.
"People can live with the inconvenience of waste management measures, or they can have landfills and incinerator facilities built near their homes," Chen said.
Every evening, as the melody of Beethoven's Fuer Elise rings out from the garbage truck loudspeakers, Dzeng and her fellow residents hurriedly haul separate bags of garbage, plastics, paper and aluminum cans to a street corner to get ready for the arrival.
"I guess issuing fines is the only way to make Chinese people recycle," Dzeng said. "A lot of people simply don't care about general quality of life, but at least they understand the meaning of hard cash."
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