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These Taiwanese Businesses Are Turning Trash Into Fuel and Violins

"In Chinese culture, reusing and recycling is in our genes. This is a Buddhist way of thinking."

In his Taipei office earlier this month, Gordon Yu showed me photos of a Mercedes S350 BlueTec.

"We were able to power this car entirely from fuel made from plastic," Yu said. "It has less emission pollution and costs the same as petro-based diesel." He pauses for dramatic effect and adds, giddily: "And it has a higher horsepower."

The fuel, called R-One, is made from plastic waste through the use of reactive catalysts and high temperatures. Through a process called pyrolysis, the plastic goes from solid, to liquid, to gas state. The plastic can be sourced from waste landfills and then processed with less sorting than traditional recycling.

Taiwan is a leader in innovative recycling and sustainability. The Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research says that 15 percent of the country's exports are green products and according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs, this sector is expected to generate opportunities exceeding $318 billion by 2020.

"Right now Taiwan excels at energy efficiency, pollution control, real on the ground environmental protection technology," said Nate Maynard, a consultant at the Chunghua Institution for Economic Research, a Taiwan-based think tank. "No energy solution is universally applicable, however plastic to fuel can address major problems in Asia, like trash burning, littering, and a general reliance on diesel fuel."

In Taiwan, the plastic-to-fuel technology is championed by recycling company EVP Group, where Yu works, which can process over twenty tons of plastic per day. While plastic to fuel is an innovation that's been around for nearly three decades, EVP is the only company worldwide that processes plastic without washing and separating —which saves immensely on costs.

Gordon Yu with his colleagues. Image: Clarissa Wei

"We can process a high yield and we accept the widest ranges of plastic in the world," Yu said. R-One is always in continuous production.

Each day, seven kiloliters of R-One, or "regenerative oil new energy", can be generated and it has a low sulfur-content at ten parts per million (ppm). For context, in the United States, low sulfur content for highway diesel fuel is 500 ppm. Ultra low sulfur diesel only clocks in at 15 ppm. Sulfur causes acid rain, and sulfur dioxide is a mild greenhouse gas. So low sulfur fuels help with reducing air pollution.

R-One also has important economic implications for Taiwan. "The difference with Taiwan and the United States is that Taiwan is importing their fuel. With plastic-to-fuel technology, Taiwan can reduce their dependence on imports, reduce waste, have marginally better air quality, and reduce the public health impact of burning waste," Maynard said.

What's interesting about Yu and his involvement with EVP is not so much the technology, but his broader vision for these sustainable technologies in Taiwan. He is the managing director of the Taiwan Hsinchu Green Industry Association, an industry group that includes over 40 sustainable technology companies in Taiwan.

"When people ask what business I am in and I say sustainability, no one understands that here in Taiwan," he said. "So I say cradle-to-cradle instead and then they understand." (Cradle-to-cradle refers to a regenerative design system that mimics nature. Waste is recycled back into the production cycle and made into products of value.)

Making of the glass violin. Video courtesy of Gordon Yu

Yu also serves as the CEO of Etouch Innovation Company, a member of the industry association, which produces products like egg cartons made with recycled fibers, and violins fashioned with leftover glass from smartphones.

"It's such a beautiful instrument," he said of the recycled glass violin. "It has such a unique sound."

The core philosophy of the green industry association is to use waste as a resource and process it as efficiently as possible into a viable, commercial product.

And Taiwan has long been an innovator in sustainable technology. "Taiwan's rapid progress in sustainability keeps me optimistic," Maynard said. "In several decades they have developed world class recycling systems which in turn created a whole branch of other industries using recycled products."

Yu has lofty goals, such as creating an ocean-based fueling station that converts plastic waste to R-One. "This would mean cheaper cargo and less plastic in the ocean."

Read More: From Trash to Punk: The Underside of China's Spectacular Urban Growth

Other companies and products under the Hsinchu Green Industry Association include Taiwan's largest recycling association, a business that makes fabrics out of recycled plastics, biodegradable diapers, building bricks made out of plastic, phone cases made with rice husks, and sandals fashioned out of agricultural waste.

But Maynard is skeptical they will be able to make it long term. "It's hard for green business in Taiwan to get the investment they need due to a short-sighted investment culture," he said.

"People don't understand the risks of these kinds of products and hesitate to invest. This in turn leads to challenges with internationalization or localization, I see a lot of great ideas that fail to really take hold."

Yu, however, is not deterred.

"Taiwan has always been an innovative country," he says. "It's been recycling for a long time. In Chinese culture, reusing and recycling is in our genes. This is a Buddhist way of thinking."