Taiwan tests recycling's limits with bus stops out of bottles
- 1 March 2013
- From the section Technology
"It will rise from trash," says the smiling young man sporting a white safety helmet, as he points to the bustling construction site behind him, near the raging sea.
The man is Arthur Huang, architect, urban designer and one of Taiwan's leading entrepreneurs, and the factory under construction - an hour's drive north of Taiwan's capital, Taipei - is set to process and recycle the electronic waste generated by the island's consumers and its numerous technology companies.
But it aims to do more than that.
"We want to take recycling to the next level," says Mr Huang. "Not only will this factory do the usual e-waste recycling, extracting gold and copper from your discarded computers and smartphones, but it will be built completely out of recycled materials.
"It will have the highest environmental standard of any recycling factory in the world."
He shows me a model of the future plant - ceilings built out of plastic left over from CDs and DVDs, and walls out of glass fibre from computer motherboards.
Mr Huang runs Miniwiz, a start-up that develops green approaches to buildings.
The e-waste plant is Miniwiz's biggest project yet, built with one of Taiwan's largest recycling companies, SDTI.
GT Ding, chief technology officer of SDTI, shows me a jar containing 2kg (4.4lb) of gold. "This gold comes from more than 10,000 motherboards," he says.
E-waste recycling is important, he says, because if you dump your computer in your back yard, its components will leach and poison the environment and people living nearby.
And that is especially important here in Taiwan.
The island, just 36,190 sq km (13,973 sq miles) and with a population of 23 million, produces more electronics per head than any other country.
It is home to companies such as Foxconn, and a host of electronics firms such as Asus, Acer, Via and HTC, which are a force in the market for mobile phones and computers.
Whenever there is a production issue, electronic components are discarded.
Then there is consumer e-waste - people here love gadgets, and love to change them regularly.
All this waste needs to be dealt with. Until a few years ago, it used to be dumped in landfills, but it is tricky to find much space on an island where more than 70% of the land is covered by mountains.
In 2010, Taiwan's government adopted a zero landfill policy, encouraging recycling and promoting sustainability, says Prof Hsiao Kang Ma, of the National Taiwan University.
"Our land is very precious, we can't just dump anything anywhere, we have to have better solutions," he says.
The move has spurred on innovation. Some factories now make furniture out of paper instead of wood, and the island has gained a reputation for making eco-clothes.
It even made jerseys for nine football teams competing in the World Cup when it was held in South Africa - using polyester recycled from plastic bottles.
Such clothes are lighter than the usual fabric and absorb sweat better, says Super Textile Corporation, one of the Taiwanese companies weaving shirts and sweaters out of bottles.
"The process also uses less water and energy - we simply use coloured bottles to avoid using dye," says Alex Lo, the company's managing director.
Despite all its efforts, a stain continues to mark Taiwan's eco-credentials.
With landfill banned, the islanders currently dispose of most of their rubbish by using incinerators - not recycling plants.
Twenty six waste-burning centres are dotted around the island.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace warns incinerating rubbish is even worse than dumping it.
"Incinerators are not a solution to our waste problems - the burnt waste goes into the atmosphere, and it's a shared atmosphere," says the group's spokesman.
"All it does is increase the level of dioxins - dangerous chemicals."
But while there is room for further improvement, the island's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) says a lot of progress has been made.
Driven by the government's aggressive recycling policy, during the past decade levels rose from about 10% in early 2000s to more than 60%, its says.
Recycling trucks trundle through the streets of Taipei twice a day. You know they are coming when you suddenly hear Beethoven's For Elise blasting out on the street.
And Miniwiz is helping find unusual uses for the collected materials.
In 2010, it made headlines with EcoArc, a 24m (79ft) building made out of 1.5 million recycled plastic bottles.
Thrown-away plastic is a global problem - millions of tonnes of it litter the world's oceans. The Taiwanese go through about 4.5 billion plastic bottles every year.
The company sifted through rubbish donated by volunteers, and with the backing of one of the world's largest producer of plastic bottles, Taiwan's Far Eastern group, engineered translucent plastic "bricks" - that also looked like bottles.
Put together in a honeycomb fashion, they became walls and ceilings of a building that, the company says, can withstand typhoons and fire - while letting through natural lighting to save electricity.
Mr Huang says EcoArc was made to show the world it was possible to use rubbish to make buildings.
The company did not stop there.
Over the past few months, it built hundreds of bus stops in the south of Taiwan - from recycled plastic bottles.
"The e-waste factory is the most recent project, and we are also working on an eco-theatre in Shanghai - we will build it out of post-consumer waste, re-bonding it on nano level to create very strong materials," says Mr Huang.
Lack of space and raw materials compels Taiwanese companies to recycle and make the world a bit greener.
Now it is up to the rest of the world to catch up.