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How a Taiwanese organisation strengthens local communities through recycling

Most people think of waste as something dirty that needs to be disposed of as soon as possible, but Olivia Yun-An Dung's dissertation aims to show that this does not always have to be the case. For this purpose, she focuses on Tzu Chi recycling in Taiwan. There, an army of elderly volunteers has been participating in community recycling since the early 1990s.

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a Taiwanese international humanitarian and non-governmental organisation. The foundation's work includes medical assistance, disaster relief and ecological work such as recycling. 'It is basically a community recycling system based on volunteers,' Dung explains. 'It was mostly local volunteers - not the organisation itself - who set up recycling stations in their neighbourhoods. Elderly people in particular volunteer to collect waste from the neighbourhood, take it to the facility, sort the waste and scrap it,' she explains. 'They do this with incredible precision. Not only do they sort different types of plastic, but they also sort the waste by colour. The meticulous work is really different from what I see happening in both the private corporate sector and the public sector.'

Nostalgia for the past

What fascinated her most, was that the vast majority of volunteers are retired elderly people whose work history consists of manual labour. 'Why do older people volunteer in those dirty recycling stations? Why don't they just chill at home?’ Dung wondered. She discovered that these older volunteers do not volunteer simply because they think recycling is good for the environment, but also for two underlying reasons.

'In my dissertation, I analyse the relationship between waste recycling in Taiwan and social development. After the Second World War, Taiwan very quickly developed from an agricultural society into a manufacturing industry into today's high-tech economy. That is a drastic change in such a short time,' says Dung. 'Tzu Chi shows how nostalgia, a yearning for the past, for a sense of familiarity and solidarity, motivates people to engage in so-called environmental action, such as recycling. Through the work of meticulous recycling, as well as the factory-like environment, the elderly volunteers found their past while volunteering. They also found Taiwan’s past – the economic history of making products for the global market in the 1960s and 1970s. But instead of making things, like they did when they were young, they were now ‘unmaking’ products.

Recycling as material incarnation

The other reason can be found in the way the organisation presents recycling. 'Tzu Chi describes recycling as a form of material reincarnation. In Buddhism, there exists a circle of life and you are reborn after death. So they say: if we produce something and then throw it away, there is no circle, so we have to recycle in order to create it.' The Buddhist and religious interpretation of recycling allows the volunteers to have a cultural imagination in relation to recycling. This traditional worldview appeals to them and makes more sense than the scientific environmental discourse that we found in the public sector.’

National identity

It was this personal and religious connection through recycling that sparked Dung's interest in the topic. 'I wanted to understand our relationship with waste as a society. Initially, I was researching the political-economic system of recycling in Taiwan, but then I stumbled upon this peculiar case. I decided to change my topic because I realised that Tzu Chi is not just about the environment and the economy. It is also a social and cultural phenomenon’, she says.

'There are still parallels with private companies, such as a logistics system and national management, but Tzu Chi is so much more than that. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was important for the Taiwanese to create a national identity and community. This kind of recycling played a part in that. A sense of community was very common before the industrialisation, but was quickly lost after that. By walking around your neighbourhood and collecting waste, you revive that community.'

Building a better relationship

Using the Tzu Chi Foundation as an example, Dung hopes to show a different dimension of waste and recycling: it can be positive as well. 'Currently, we see waste as evidence of our ecological planetary crisis, but it is actually a part of our society. I want to find a better way of talking about waste than constantly trying to eradicate it in a non-personal way, because that's how we created the problem in the first place.'

But how can we achieve this in real life? 'You need a community recycling centre,' says Dung. 'People need to build a relationship with materials, but it can also bring people together for social reasons.' This, she says, creates the opportunity to think about waste in a different way. 'I think the current problem with waste is that when we think about it, we feel bad. And those thoughts eventually lead to fatigue. A community recycling centre can help create a better relationship with materials.'

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