Yes, Richer Countries Produce More Waste. But Do They Have To?

When it’s garbage day in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, you won’t see abandoned trash bags on the streets waiting for pickup, as you might in Manhattan. Instead, you’ll find Taiwanese citizens lining up to heave their own bags into the garbage truck each and every night.

By turning rubbish collection into a daily civic duty, this island of 23.5 million has been remarkably successful at achieving something that eludes most developing nations: The richer Taiwan gets, the less trash it produces.

Thanks to policies implemented in 1988, the government has been able to decouple GDP growth and production of household waste over a period of about one generation. As the nation’s wealth has risen—approaching $40,000 per capita—the Taiwanese somehow managed to waste less and defy the notion put forth by economists Michael McDonough and Carl Riccadonna that economic growth leads to more consumption and, therefore, more waste. Today, the average Taiwanese citizen produces less than a kilogram of trash per day, according to the Taiwanese Institute for Sustainable Energy. By comparison, the average American produces roughly two kilos (or about four and a half pounds).

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