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Waste Reduction by Design:Building the Circular Economy in Taiwan

2020-02-12
Tina Xie /photo byKent Chuang /tr. byJonathan Barnard
 
Enrestec uses pyrolysis technology to turn scrap tires into high-value “carbon black,” which can be reused in industrial products.
Enrestec uses pyrolysis technology to turn scrap tires into high-value “carbon black,” which can be reused in industrial products. 
 
In 2016 The Wall Street Journal praised the Taiwanese as “the world’s geniuses of garbage disposal.” That same year the newly elected government proclaimed that Taiwan was entering the era of the “circular economy” as part of the nation’s “5+2” industrial innovation program. Instantly, the phrase became a buzzword. Nevertheless, many people mistakenly equate the term with recycling. In fact, it is a policy aimed at economic trans­formation that transcends recycling or any one industry as it pushes Taiwan beyond the limit­ations of “OEM” contract manufacturing.
 
Simply put, a “circular economy” focuses on how not to create waste. Today’s standard linear economic and commercial model takes quite the opposite approach: Natural resources are discovered and exploited; products are manufactured; and consumers throw them away. Resources that had been of value become ever-­growing, headache-inducing piles of garbage. But some people in Taiwan have been working hard to change this “cradle-to-grave” destiny of products and the production and purchasing habits of businesses and consumers that foster it. Through co­operation with both government and industry, and by educating the consuming public, they hope to promote a future in which Taiwan becomes a “circular island.”
 
The seat of REnato lab’s “Plastic Chair” is woven from old car safety belts.
The seat of REnato lab’s “Plastic Chair” is woven from old car safety belts.
 
Cradle-to-cradle product design
 
The first international discussions about creating products for a circular economy came with the “cradle to cradle” (C2C) design ethos pioneered by the German chemistry professor Michael Braungart and the American architect William McDonough. “Good design is like nature,” they argued. “There should be no such thing as waste!” At the very start of product design, consideration should be given to how a product will ultimately be broken apart and reused or decomposed to nourish nature.
In Germany in 1987, Braungart founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA), a private-sector consultancy, based on C2C principles. Branches were later set up in the Netherlands, Switzer­land, Turkey and Brazil. In 2010 the first Asian branch was opened in Taiwan.
In 2012, the Taiwan Cradle to Cradle Strategic Alliance (C2C Taiwan) was established at the urging of EPEA Taiwan and the ROC’s Environmental Protection Agency. The organization’s goal is to help its members understand C2C concepts and guide them to work together to push implementation of C2C plans within industry. 
 
Jeff Wang (left), assistant manager of operations at Nan Tai Color Printing; Steven Huang (right, standing), sales manager in the printing and graphic department at Melchers Taiwan; and Chang Yu-chin (right, seated), manager at EPEA Taiwan, are partners in the Taiwan Cradle to Cradle Strategic Alliance.
Jeff Wang (left), assistant manager of operations at Nan Tai Color Printing; Steven Huang (right, standing), sales manager in the printing and graphic department at Melchers Taiwan; and Chang Yu-chin (right, seated), manager at EPEA Taiwan, are partners in the Taiwan Cradle to Cradle Strategic Alliance. 
 
EPEA Taiwan, which administers the Taiwan Cradle to Cradle Strategic Alliance, conducts an on-site inspection at Enrestec to ensure that the company’s manufacturing processes meet C2C certification requirements.
EPEA Taiwan, which administers the Taiwan Cradle to Cradle Strategic Alliance, conducts an on-site inspection at Enrestec to ensure that the company’s manufacturing processes meet C2C certification requirements.
 
Redefine, redesign
 
“The resource utilization of waste is just the beginning of the circular economy,” insists Charles Huang, chairman of the Taiwan Circular Economy Network. He believes that the old “three Rs” of “reduce, reuse, recycle” need to be supplemented by the “two Rs” of “redefine and redesign.”
“What we really need is cool air, not the recurring expense of purchasing air-­conditioners.” Huang exposes current consumer myths and emphasizes that when consumers “redefine their needs,” industry will change its operating models and redesign its products. The existing  industry model of product replacement as a business goal will change to “serving consumers.” As the longevity of products increases, scheduled maintenance becomes a main source of profits, and waste shrinks.
“If I sell services to you, then you’ll be my lifelong customer.” In addition to reducing waste, product servicing can also boost consumers’ brand loyalty.
In our daily lives, there are so many products for which “the need for a product should be redefined.” Huang cites an example: “Have you ever had a paper cut? If razors were made from paper, they could be composted after use.” Huang excitedly shares how circular design will bring many changes to our lives.
“In fact, Taiwan has an opportunity to become a leader in the circular economy.” Huang, who has participated in many international forums, believes that one of the island’s weak points has become a strength: Many years of operating as an “OEM” contract manufacturing economy has blessed Taiwan with strong manu­facturing abilities as good as those of any European nation. In fact, some European nations want to learn methods of the circular economy from Taiwan.
“Taiwan will end up going the route of the circular economy,” Huang asserts. “The only question is: Will it be sooner or later?” Taiwan’s economy is based around its OEM work, but it relies on imports for its raw materials. Consequently, changing to a circular economic model that leverages its design prowess should be a develop­ment goal.
 
Enrestec is the world’s only commercial pyrolysis plant to successfully produce carbon black from old tires. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Enrestec is the world’s only commercial pyrolysis plant to successfully produce carbon black from old tires. (photo by Kent Chuang)
 
Penghu’s beaches are strewn with marine debris.
Penghu’s beaches are strewn with marine debris.
 
REnato: Lab for the circular economy
 
As the concept of the circular economy has taken off, firms that help companies make the most of it have come into being. Estab­lished in 2014, REnato lab takes its name from the English “re” plus the Italian word for “born.” The name represents how the company is using circular economic methods to bring value to seemingly worthless waste products.
Founder Jackie Wang used to be employed at China Technical Consultants, where he worked with government to draw up environmental and energy policies. He discovered that although those policies could impact industry, they didn’t increase the willingness of consumers to purchase en­viron­mental products. Hence, he decided he needed to create comprehensive change from the ground up. Early on, REnato lab mainly focused on making products from waste, such as by turning old tires into chairs. But later Wang realized that there was simply too much waste. “If all of Taiwan’s recycled glass was turned into drinking glasses, every person on the island could have 76 of them each year!” So he decided that instead of focusing on helping industry turn its waste into products, it would be better to tackle the problem at the front end, by reducing the amount of waste created. He thus turned REnato into a consulting firm.
Apart from helping individual companies assess their production of waste, REnato lab also fosters connections among companies, bringing together those involved in waste management and in transforming waste into raw materials, with finished goods producers and sales channels. Only with these con­nections is it possible to design products for the circular economy. In addition to consulting about products, another service it offers is assisting companies to adjust their commercial models to the circular economy. For instance, it helped Acer establish collection points for old electronic products and batteries at 7-Elevens throughout Taiwan, making recycling easy for consumers.
Although it has transformed into a consultancy, REnato lab still handles product design work. It has even established a ­library of materials that allows designers to get a true feel for materials so they can better produce suitable products. “Our laboratories are other people’s factories.” Wang says that REnato lab defines itself as “a labora­tory for the circular economy” that tries to make products out of customers’ materials. Afterwards, if the customer is willing, it can get these products rolling off the production line just a few days later.
But REnato lab wants to have an impact on the public too. At the “Future Is Now” exhibition at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park last year, REnato provided the public with various ways to learn how life could play out in a circular economy. The exhibition also overturned some widely held myths about products designed for the circular economy—namely that they aren’t beautiful or durable.
“Environmental education ought to provide consumers with understanding based on experience—understanding that en­genders support for environmentalism.” Wang believes that dogma only leads to rules, whereas real change comes from true understanding.
 
Aiming to create new manufactured goods, REnato lab’s founder Jackie Wang tests recycled materials in clients’ factories.
Aiming to create new manufactured goods, REnato lab’s founder Jackie Wang tests recycled materials in clients’ factories.
 
The office of REnato lab has samples of all manner of processed waste materials.
The office of REnato lab has samples of all manner of processed waste materials.
 
Taiwan’s challenge: Brands and resources
 
Huang and Wang, who both have rich experience in the environmental realm, separ­ately make the same point—that branding and resource allocation are the biggest challenges facing Taiwan in developing the circular economy.
Wang explains that consumers in Taiwan typically raise the same question about products in the circular economy: “Why does recycled stuff have to be so expensive?”
Yet Taiwan’s public has demonstrated greater acceptance of recycled goods in recent years. For instance, Adidas has made sneakers out of recycled ocean plastics, while Nike has made them from PET bottles. But those aren’t Taiwanese brands. “For a domestic brand, these products might not bear the same value.” Wang believes that Taiwan’s design prowess has achieved a certain level of international recognition, but brands that market products designed for the circular economy still need more exposure.
If Taiwan wants to develop the circular economy, Huang believes, then small and medium-sized enterprises must be the initiators. Larger firms are too unwieldy to make anything more than minor adjustments at first, whereas SMEs are more flexible, more nimble in their thinking, and more capable of making overarching changes. Wang believes that if the government can allocate resources that give SMEs more opportunities to develop within the circular economy, then it will allow those concepts to mature more quickly within industry as a whole. 
As an alternative commercial model, the circular economy takes an environmental perspective that puts resources in a new light, allowing them to be continually renewed as they circulate through the economy. With Taiwan currently facing shortages of water, electricity and land, the circular economy could indeed offer real solutions.
 
Charles Huang, chairman of the Taiwan Circular Economy Network, believes that “redesigning” products and business models is the key to facilitating the circular economy.
Charles Huang, chairman of the Taiwan Circular Economy Network, believes that “redesigning” products and business models is the key to facilitating the circular economy.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
 
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