Plastic Pollution: Greenest Countries in Asia

A tyre recycled as a holder for flowers in Taoyuan, Taiwan

By Terence Koh

Plastic pollution is one of the most challenging environmental problems afflicting the world today. With most of the fastest growing economies located in Asia, everyone is looking east to see what the region is doing to reduce plastic consumption and Asia’s plastic footprint. In conjunction with our February issue on plastic pollution, Asian Geographic takes a look at South Korea and Taiwan – two of the greenest economies in Asia when it comes to sustainability and recycling. (Text by Terence Koh)



Ranked number one on Bloomberg’s Innovation Index, a measure of a country’s innovation covering the number of tech companies in the country to the number of science and engineering graduates, South Korea is the 11th biggest economy[1] in the world according to nominal GDP. As one of the leading economies in Asia, the people of South Korea not only enjoy one of the highest disposable incomes in the world, they have one of the highest recycling rates of municipal waste in Asia at 53%[2].

This high rate of recycling is rooted in the mandatory waste disposal regulations laid down by the South Korean government. The pivotal Waste Management Law, which came into effect in December 1986, provided the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) framework which changed the country’s previous “waste containment” policy into one which actively reduces waste. The Act on Resource Saving and Recycling Promotion, enacted in 1992, introduced a volume-based garbage rate system for household waste with each household mandated to buy designated garbage bags from supermarkets. Waste can only be discharged using these bags.


The South Korean drive for innovation extends to their waste collection efforts. Special waste bags of different colours are used and differentiated according to the neighbourhood you’re living in with the name of the district printed on the bag. With a volume-based garbage rate system, garbage bags are priced higher than normal plastic bags, serving as the country’s disposal tax, and residents who waste more will pay more through the use of these designated garbage bags. The targeting of the resident’s pocket is the best way to discourage waste production.

Waste sorting containers with coloured inscriptions for plastic, glass bottles and paper in downtown Seoul

Known in South Korea as jongnyangje(종량제), the South Korean system for waste collection and recycling requires all residents to sort out their waste into recyclables and non-recyclables or face a mandatory fine of up to one million won. This extends to the sorting of organic waste as well with the mandated removal of animal bones, shells and anything inedible from your food so that the remaining food waste can be collected into a specific organic food waste bag of which the contents will be collected and used as animal feed.

There is a General Waste bag (일반 쓰레기 봉투) and a Food Waste bag (음식물 쓰레기 봉투) which you can purchase at convenience stores near your residence. All waste that cannot be eaten like bones, shells, hard seeds, tea leaves, fish organs should go into the general waste bag with edible food waste going into the food waste bag. All waste bags have English, Chinese and Korean instructions printed on them with contact numbers of municipal waste companies and mandated fines for not sorting your rubbish properly prominently displayed on the bag. There are also fixed hours (6pm to midnight) for taking out the trash for collection by a garbage truck and separate bins for the proper segregation of your waste.

The bins in South Korea are sorted into the following:

Food Waste (음식물쓰레기)

  • Waste that cannot be eaten like bones, shells, hard seeds, tea leaves, fish organs should be removed and thrown into General Waste. Food waste will be recycled as animal feed

General Waste (일반쓰레기)

  • Anything that cannot be sorted out should go into this bag. These come in various sizes:3L, 5L. 10L, 20L, 50L, 75L and 100L. The most common size is 20L

Bulky Wastes

  • Approach the supervisor in your apartment complex and tell them what bulky waste you need to get rid of couches and refrigerators. These need to be disposed with a fee paid to workers depending on the size of the item. Once paid, you can attach a sticker to the item and leave it outside and the third party will pick it up

Paper (종이)

  • Newspapers
  • Books, paper bags, calendars (remove any non paper parts like the metal spine)
  • Milk and juice boxes, paper cups (insides must be dry)
  • Boxes

PET Bottles (페트병)

  • Plastic water bottle
  • All plastic beverage bottles

Vinyl (비닐)

  • Single-use plastic bags
  • Plastic wrappers 


  • Plastic containers
  • Shampoo bottles
  • Detergent bottles
  • Condiment bottles


  • Styrofoam

Yogurt and Yakult Containers

  • Yogurt bottles
  • Yakult bottles

Glass Bottles (유리()

  • Beer, soju, soft drinks , other beverages (remove caps)

Cans ( (, 얼미늄)

  • Iron and aluminium
  • Butane gas cans, pesticide cans

Metals (고철)

  • Scrap iron like tools and iron plates
  • Non-iron metals like nickel-silver, stainless steel, aluminium


South Korea was hit badly when China, the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, announced in January 2018 that it was stopping all importing of plastic waste. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Environment, two-thirds of 196,000 tonnes of recyclable waste was exported to China for disposal.

  • 48 South Korean recycling firms stopped collecting plastic and foam wastes, citing unprofitability and leaving the trash to pile up on pavements. The crisis lasted for close to two weeks until the government promised financial help to these companies
  • Recycling firms like Meerae Enterprises, which compresses polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and packs them for washing and shredding by domestic recyclers, receive US$0.22 (S$0.30) per kilogramme of waste collected from the city government.
  • The Korean Ministry of Environment unveiled tougher regulations in May 2018 to increase recycling rate from 34 percent to 70 percent by 2030
  • Beverage makers are banned from using coloured plastic bottles from 2020 as these are more expensive to process for recycling compared to colourless ones
  • Disposable cups and plastic straws at coffee shops and other public places are being phased out gradually by 2027, announced the government in September 2018. The government started out by banning the use of plastic cups inside all cafes in August 2018 with plastic cups only used for take-out. Violators of the new rules are subject to a two million won (S$2,400) fine



After retreating to the island of Taiwan on October 1 1949 from mainland China, the nationalist government of the Republic of China (ROC) led by the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law. Taiwan’s rapid industrialising through the 1950s and 1960s, however, lead to a very high waste output and for a long period, Taiwan became known as the Garbage Island with recycling rates as low as five percent.

Taiwan's yellow garbage trucks collect trash sorted by its residents

After emerging as one of the Four Asian Tigers of Asia in the 1980s, Taiwan made an amendment to its Waste Disposal Act in 1987 which led to a concerted system-wide recycling programme that began in 1989. Although it had to go through a period of false reporting of recycling rates due to fraudulent private contractors, the establishment of the 3R Foundation in 1994 and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Administration as a one-stop shop for all of Taiwan’s environmental policies – specifically overseeing a commission for each of the recyclables such as paper, plastic, general waste and food waste – has enabled Taiwan to increase its recycling rate to 55 percent of its municipal waste. From a trash collection rate of just 70 percent in 1993, with virtually no waste recycled and two-thirds of its landfills nearly full, Taiwan’s three amendments to its Waste Disposal Act (WDA) put the onus on manufacturers and importers to bear financial responsibility for recycling by forming associations to fund recycling. This was changed to a recycling fee paid to the Environmental Protection Administration Taiwan (EPAT) with the manufacturers mandated to offer collection of waste for recycling from consumers. The fee is paid into the Recycling Fund which subsidises collection and recycling by licensed enterprises. A 2001 amendment expanded regulations to clarify the responsibilities of manufacturers and importers to ensure recyclable wastes are collected by municipal collection teams.


Like South Korea, Taiwan’s recycling system requires residents to sort their trash into recyclables like plastic, paper, metal and general waste. The Taiwanese have gone one better than the South Koreans with residents mandated to further segregate food waste into raw food waste and cooked food waste. Raw food waste is composted for use as fertilizers while cooked food waste is processed as food for pigs and other farm animals.

A woman passes a bag to a worker on Taiwan's famous white trucks that collect recyclable materials

Residents sort their waste into different bins and the municipal garbage trucks are painted an iconic yellow that patrol the streets a few times a week with classical music serving as a signal that the trucks are on their rounds. A smaller white truck with different specified bins for different recyclables from raw food to cardboard runs behind the yellow one. In Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, there are more than 4,000 garbage pickup spots which these iconic yellow garbage trucks visit five times a week. Residents can also download mobile apps that let users track the trucks and alert the user when the trucks are near.

Like South Korea, Taiwanese residents must put their general waste into government-approved blue garbage bags which they must purchase. Recyclable materials like metals, glass and paper can be put in any kind of bag. Taipei has also installed a smart recycling booth that pays money into the user’s mass transit access card for every recyclable bottle or can.

[1] From at

[2] From Eunomia and World Economic Forum at

Read more about plastic pollution, climate change and the energy crisis in our special February issue (No. 134 Issue 1/2019) of Asian Geographic magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here