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Taiwan electronics

E-Waste Incentives: Taiwan Lights the Way

Taiwan electronicsE-waste producers, recyclers and policymakers in North America may want to turn their gaze to Taiwan, which in the past two decades has transformed itself into a recycling powerhouse.

The island has about 2,000 recycling companies and an industrial recycling rate of about 80 percent, and last year waste firms brought in revenues of 65.8 billion Taiwan dollars ($2.2 billion), according to the New York Times.

As recently as the 1990s, household waste piled up in the streets, and industrial toxic waste got dumped in public spaces. But then the government imposed a fee on producers and importers to cover collection and recycling costs for 33 types of goods, including electronics, but also glass, plastic, tires and batteries. The government spends about $6 billion a year on subsidies for recycling companies, with the money then filtering down to collectors and consumers. Government incentives also go to recyclers using advanced technologies – and Taiwanese companies have developed several breakthrough recycling methods.

Now, Taiwanese recycler Super Dragon says, companies no longer pay it for refuse pick-up – instead, Super Dragon pays the companies for their valuable waste.

Taiwan’s success provide a valuable case study for the e-waste industry on other continents. A European Commission-supported survey of e-waste reuse organizations in Africa, the Americas and Europe found that two of the recyclers’ biggest barriers are the low availability of good quality used equipment, and a lack of legislative incentives. Current legislation does not provide adequate financial incentives for, or enforcement of, e-waste reuse.

(On the availability front, Taiwan might not offer the most instructive example – it produces the most electronics per capita in the world.)

But Taiwan is also showing how the e-waste industry might be evolving. Super Dragon says it is now considering a move into the precious metals trading business, because it has accumulated so much gold from its e-waste processing. According to a UN report, one metric ton of electrical and electronic waste contains as much gold as 5 to 15 metric tons of typical gold ore, and amounts of copper, aluminum and rare metals that exceed by many times the levels found in typical ores.

As a result, printed circuit boards are probably the “richest ore stream you’re ever going to find,” the report says.

Takeaway: E-waste continues to face significant financial and structural barriers in many countries, but Taiwan’s experience shows one possible solution.

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