From Taiwan Panorama 2018-04-23
As Taiwan’s largest glass recycler, Spring Pool Glass recycles about 100,000 metric tons of glass per year, accounting for 70% of all glass re cycled in Taiwan. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development uses the rate of recycling and reuse of waste glass as an indicator of a country’s competitiveness. This is because recycling glass is very difficult, and the price of recycled glass is low, meaning that if a country does glass recycling well, recycling of other materials should be no problem. T.A. Wu, executive assistant to the chairman of Spring Pool Glass, explains right up front the significance of the glass recycling rate. “Glass art created with recycled glass embodies the ideals of environmental friendliness and sustainable resources that Spring Pool has held to for the last 50 years. Taiwan’s glass re cyc ling rate is the second highest in the world, behind only Sweden. As Taiwan’s largest glass recycler, Spring Pool Glass recycles about 100,000 metric tons of glass per year, accounting for 70% of all glass re cycled in Taiwan. The reduction in carbon emissions is equivalent to creating some 500 Da’an Parks. In a business in which profits are not high, throughout the nearly 60 years of its existence Spring Pool has devoted itself to one task—recycling and putting into practice the circular economy.
Opening up the valve of a blowtorch, T.A. Wu, execut ive assistant to the chairman of Spring Pool Glass, directs a blue flame of 800 °C toward a “green” building material the company has newly developed, the AH Lightweight Insulation Block. Even after applying the fire to the block for several minutes, there is no smoke whatsoever, and no burn marks on the surface. Moreover, the other side of the block is still cool to the touch. The material’s fire resistance and thermal insulation properties are amazing.
“Glass art created with recycled glass embodies the ideals of environmental friendliness and sustainable resources that Spring Pool has held on to for the last 50 years.”
Low margins drive innovation
Going from a traditional recycling business to developing the world’s first green building material whose raw material is flat-panel display glass, Spring Pool’s creative transformation in recent years has been truly astonishing. But as they have moved from glass recycling into industrial raw materials, high-tech building materials, culture and arts, as well as opening one of their factories to tourists, “our innovations in fact have been forced on us by the larger environment,” says T.A. Wu.
Wu’s father, company chairman Wu Chun-chi, has been involved in glass-related businesses for over 50 years. He began as an apprentice in a glass factory at age 13, learning the mix of materials for manufacturing glass, and later moved into recycling waste glass. But the profit from glass recycling is very low, with the price of one kilo gram of recycled glass being only a few tenths of an NT dollar, so that unless you operate on a large scale, there is virtually no profit to speak of. So Wu Chun-chi gradually grew the size of his operation, developing from a collection round using a single small truck to what is now Taiwan’s largest glass recycling business.
But as the company grew, the varieties of glass taken in by Spring Pool grew ever more diverse, with volume multiplying many times over, which also made their inventory risk ever greater. “In recycling, the greatest pressure comes from unsaleable inventory.” T.A. Wu raises a case in point: A decade or so ago, demand for container glass in the market dropped sharply, and the company’s growing stock of container glass became a burden. At that time Wu Chun-chi developed waste container glass into a green building material called “glass stone,” adding another material for traditional terrazzo and helping to create a new market for waste glass.
T.A. Wu explains that this picture of Yushan made using “glass stones” creates a 3D effect because the glass reflects light.
Having overcome the first crisis through successful innovation, the next danger followed right behind. Taiwan is a major producer of consumer electronics, and every year generates large amounts of display panel glass that must be recycled. This type of glass has a higher melting point than other glass, meaning more energy is needed to melt down, yet it is difficult to use after recycling. However, T.A. Wu thought outside the box, realizing that a high melting point indicates that it should be suitable for making fire-resistant building material. So he applied the technology that he had developed as a student for making insulative foamed glass blocks, and after various trials and adjustments at the factory, finally succeeded in mass- producing blocks from foamed display panel glass.
Wu explains the principle behind the energy-saving blocks. After display panel glass is ground into a powder, it is mixed with concrete, and then undergoes a foaming process, which fills the material with small pores that block both heat and sound.
The fire-resistant, thermally and acoustically insulating AH Lightweight Insulation Block meets the coming need for energy-saving and environmentally friendly construction materials.
The environmentally friendly energy-saving blocks are fire-resistant, sound insulating, heat insulating, vibration absorbing, non-toxic and lightweight, giving them a very high market potential.
Spring Pool’s energy-saving blocks were used as early as 2014 by the UNICODE team at National Chiao Tung University in the design of their Orchid House, which took the Prize for Urbanism, Transport and Affordability at that year’s Solar Decathlon Europe in Versailles, France.
The energy-saving blocks went into mass production in 2013, and have received certification as Fire Retardant Grade 1 from the Taiwan Accreditation Foundation and for two-hour fire-resistance from the Ministry of the Interior, as well as two-hour fire-resistance certification and a green building material label from TÜV SÜD in Singapore. T.A. Wu is steadily preparing to take Spring Pool’s insulation blocks international, to show Taiwan’s re cycl ing creativity to the world.
The W Glass Project
In 2017, T.A. Wu launched the “W Glass Project.”
Wu studied resources engineering at National Cheng Kung University, and then went to the University of Cambridge in Britain to earn a degree in industrial management. After returning to Taiwan, he first went to work for the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and only later returned home to work in his father’s firm. His experience in high-tech industry has taught him that all technologies eventually become “traditional industries,” with the result that the transformation and sustainability of enterprises are issues that must be faced for the future. So where is the future of Spring Pool? Perhaps one answer can be found in the notion of the “circular economy” implicit in the “W Glass Project” that Wu proposed.
Spring Pool Glass’s tourist factory maintains the setup of a glassworks from 50 years ago. The furnace burns 24 hours a day, and there is a group of highly skilled craftspeople who are still tirelessly innovating and passing down their knowledge.
“W stands for my father’s name ‘Wu,’ and also for ‘waste,’ but its most important meaning is wu in the sense of ‘not having.’” This is because the W Glass Project has no limits. Anything with recycling as the core concept that makes use of Spring Pool’s recycled glass and the craftsmanship of its glass masters, along with cross-disciplinary co operation with outside designers, can be incorporated into the W Glass Project.
For the “Circular Economy Ocean” displayed at the 2017 Creative Expo Taiwan, 40 metric tons of re cycled glass was used to form a glass “sea,” and visitors were invited to take off their shoes and wade in to experience the tactile sensation. At the Beitou Cooling Summer Festival in July handmade water bells blown from recycled glass floated in a hot springs pool inside the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, and the bright sound they made by bumping into one another as they floated let people enjoy the feeling of a summer day with both auditory and visual senses. Or there is the “Darts by André” tableware set, made in collaboration with André Chiang: all the items are made from recycled glass, while the mats to go under the dishes are made from the wood of oaken whiskey barrels retired from service. Each project allows recycled glass to appear in daily life in different forms, becoming part of the daily routine.
Does this sound like a case of a business at the end of the industrial value chain taking the initiative to create demand at the head of the chain?
Waste glass received from all over must undergo separation by type and color, removal of impurities, and machine grinding. (courtesy of Spring Pool Glass)
That’s right. “The circular economy should produce value at the end of the chain if we are to close the circle,” says T.A. Wu. He uses the concept of “circularity” to work with people from different fields and create opportunities for recycled glass. For example, for the small glass bottles shaped to fit snugly in the hand made in cooperation with the singer JJ Lin, the constantly growing number of advance orders from fans quietly drove the project along. For the “143 single-mouthful beer glass” project, the public were encouraged to interact with frontline recycling workers, express their thanks, take photos and check in on Facebook. In exchange they could receive a 143-milliliter beer glass manufactured by Spring Pool from recycled glass; this project got a great response.
People from the world of design have also taken the initiative to seek out cooperation with Spring Pool. Hong Kong designer Niko Leung originally worked mainly with ceramics, but she discovered that the waste materials produced in the firing of ceramics are not re cyc lable, causing a waste of resources. After a friend introduced her to Spring Pool Glass, she found out that glass can be 100% re cycled, making it more environmentally friendly than ceramics. The old master craftspeople at Spring Pool, with their consummate skills, blow re cycled glass into works that Leung designs. Any failed products can be re cycled completely, eliminating the concerns she felt.
The W Glass Project utilizes all kinds of cross-disciplinary collaboration to participate in daily life. The “143 single-mouthful beer glass” project is one example.
Practicing the circular economy
At Spring Pool’s tourist factory, the workspace for glass blowing retains the pattern of 50 years ago, and you can see glass masters with decades of experience. “I am most worried about how to transmit the skills of these masters to the next generation,” says T.A. Wu. “Other processes can be automated, but not this, because this is culture, and it depends on knowledge and skills built up over time.” Wu says with heartfelt sincerity: “The W Glass Project aims to compensate for this aspect. Through cross-disciplinary cooperation and creating market demand, we will enable these masters to find heirs to their craft, so that it can be passed down to the next generation.”
“The W Glass Project ultimately may become something that grows organically,” says Wu. With continual innovation from all kinds of collaborative projects, Spring Pool will simply play the role of a facilitator, enabling the concepts of closed loops and sustainability to circulate in society and have an impact.
How will the W Glass Project develop in the future? Wu says he doesn’t know. “The only thing that is certain is that glass recycling will not disappear.” He adds: “Perhaps there is no need for Spring Pool to establish its own brand, but rather we can work with many people in different sectors, and allow each cross-disciplinary collaboration to become its own independent brand. Perhaps Spring Pool doesn’t need to establish its own marketing channels—it’s fine if everyone knows that products are part of closed loop, with ‘Spring Pool inside.’”
Even more W Glass Project projects are being promoted in 2018, and it is exciting merely to think about the boundless possibilities for the future. But behind all of these amazingly cool collaborative projects, there is Spring Pool’s philosophy of “doing one’s own business as well as possible.” It is a core value, written on Spring Pool’s webpage, that “everything we do is for the next generation.” When President Tsai Ing-wen visited Spring Pool Glass in 2016, after a walkthrough she said with feeling: “These are just two simple words, ‘circular economy,’ but some people spend their entire lives putting them into practice.”
Glass bells floating in a hot-spring pool make a bright sound when they strike each other, allowing people to enjoy the feeling of a summer’s day with both their auditory and visual senses. (photo by Rock Burger Photography, courtesy of BIAS Architects)
Following the path pursued by Spring Pool, we do indeed see a group of people who are devoting their lives to putting the circular economy into practice, giving waste glass a new lease on life, and using creativity to carry Taiwan onto the international stage, while also allowing us to see Taiwan’s sustainable future.