The Hidden Side of Trash in Taipei

DESCRIPTIONRichard Perry / The New York Times

Our recent podcast about the economics of trash featured a story about an American grad student living in Taipei. He discovered that that city had an unusual trash-collection style: instead of putting your trash out at a curb or in a dumpster, you’d have to bring your trash out at a certain hour to deposit it directly in a municipal trash truck, which might be playing Beethoven to announce its arrival. (Transcript here; video here.)

Now a reader named Nick Grisanti has written in with some further detail:

Having lived in Taipei for over two years now, I wanted to give you some more insight into the trash issue. Everything from your podcast story was accurate, but there are even more interesting outcomes of Taiwan’s trash system. In two years here I’ve never taken out my own trash. Why is this? The secondary trash economy, of course. In my first apartment, trash removal was built right into my “building fee,” which was essentially extra rent I paid my landlord every month. He in turn paid a building maintenance lady to deal with our rubbish.

In my current apartment we are visited by a “trash man” every month, and for a fee of 500 NT (about $15) we can place our trash on the first floor at our leisure, and the trash guy’s crew will remove it a few times a week. This leads to the common sight of trailers of non-municipal garbage trucks piled and overflowing with trash bags. I assume they drive them directly to the incinerator (96 percent of trash is incinerated here), but smaller collecting operations just wait on the corner in the evening with the other locals who don’t pay for the monthly service.

Also, not mentioned in the podcast was for how this is all paid. Taipei residents must purchase designated blue trash bags to be allowed to use the “Beethoven trucks.” These are more expensive than typical household trash bags. The trash lady from my first apartment always got on my case for tossing my trash out into the hallway in generic bags. My current collecting service doesn’t require us to package our trash in any special way. They buy the largest size of the special blue bags and repackage all of my building’s trash into these bags, so they can then deposit them into the garbage trucks. The 500 NT is an absurdly low price in my estimation for the service. My busy roommates and I would probably pay up to 4x that much to avoid the hassle of waiting for the truck in the evenings.

Some other interesting by products of this system:

Municipal sidewalk garbage cans are noticeably scare throughout Taipei city. (Although I have noticed higher concentrations in the heavily-expat neighborhood in which I live, and around the more ritzy Taipei 101 district.) But in the vast and densely populated neighborhoods of Taipei, I find myself holding wrappers and drink bottles for blocks at a time looking for a place to deposit them. My theory is that roadside receptacles would quickly fill up with household waste from people who don’t want to wait for the truck at night, so the city simply does supply them.

Recycling is widespread here. (A recycling truck follows the Beethoven one every night). But a convenient byproduct of this is that there are plenty of plastic/glass/can collectors who keep the streets and public areas clean in return for bottle and can refunds. Most every foreign English teacher enjoys a good drinking session at “Bar 7/11” because there are no laws against open containers on the street in Taiwan. We often buy beers at 7/11 and sit in a park. Rather than finding a trash can to throw away our cans, you can be sure someone will collect them by morning. We’ve even had old Taiwanese people come up and claim our empties before we were finished, making sure no competitors swooped in and stole their bounty.

Finally, maybe thing that ties this all together is that Taiwan has the highest density of convenience stores in the world. They generate tons of trash with bags and wrappers. There’s always one within walking distance to buy more beers for the park. And when I buy a Coke at 7/11 there’s always another one a few blocks away to go inside and throw away the empty bottle.

Here’s a picture of a trash incinerator with a revolving restaurant at the top.

Who knew trash could be so interesting?

Indeed. Thanks, Nick.


Dixon

Another measure TW uses to reduce waste: Supermarkets and convenient stores don't give you plastic bags for free. It costs $10NTD (approx 35 US cents) each. This (rein)forces reduce/reuse behavior.

XM

This guy's trash service "repackages" his trash in blue bags. That means there are two garbage bags used for every bag of trash. If this is widespread, it defeats a lot of efforts to cut bag use elsewhere.

Brian Keaney

While Taiwan may have the highest convenience store density per nation, I highly doubt any one neighborhood has more than the popular tourist district of Waikiki in Honolulu. There it is not uncommon to see two or three ABC Stores in a single block.

Christopher Walker

The amusing side effect is that after spending time in Taiwan, I will never again be able to hear the opening measures of Fur Elise without thinking of garbage.

Jon-David

I used to live in Taipei, and if I understand correctly the blue bags are used so you can throw anything away. If you use other bags it must not contain recyclables. So the blue bags are a way of paying a tax on not recycling. It makes it easier to not worry about seperating out the recycling in your trash, you just are supposed to pay for it. Your hired collectors probably seperated the trash for you or bought blue bags.

Julie

Yes Christopher, Fur Elise will never be the same for me after a year spent in Taiwan.

Taiwan also has a smart way of getting stores to give receipts. The receipt lotto. Keep your receipts and you might win some money.

Cindy

Contrary to popular belief, the trash song is actually Modlitwa Dziewicy's Maiden's Prayer and not Fur Elise by Beethoven.

I live in Hsinchu, arguably a suburb of Taipei. My first apt building had a trash room, where bins of all types are available for you to sort your trash, including kitchen waste for composting. Sorting is required by law. We get nasty notes from the building management if we do not sort correctly because the trash people charge extra to, for example, get the plastic bag out of the compost pile. There is even refrigeration provided for the compost so that it doesn't stink too badly before the trash people come. The cost is in the HOA.

My second apt building has similar bins arranged in an outside area. No refridgeration.

My aunt works on a recycling truck. The recycling there goes a little beyond reusing the raw material. There is a small secondary market for usable discards. She has found me good working strollers, rolling bags, and small furniture.

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Nick Grisanti

@XM You are correct. Paying the trash guy to take our stuff out does lead to trash bags within trash bags. Somewhat defeats the purpose of all the recycling they do here.

@Brian Keaney In high density areas of Taipei city, there might be 10 or 15 convenience stores within a square mile. Three or four within a standing 360 degree view is common. The only thing more ubiquitous in this country are taxis.

Cindy

Clarification on the Taipei system. The blue trash bags includes a fee-for-use (about 3 cents per bag). Residents do not pay additional money for trash collection. Recycling does not require these blue bags and are thus free.

You generate more trash or put more recyclables in your trash, then you use more blue bags that cost you more. Sounds reasonable to me.

Shane

Japan also lacks regular sidewalk garbage cans (or "bins" as we call them on this side of the Atlantic). Yet confectionary is often heavily packaged, with individual sweets wrapped in plastic, within a plastic bag which the shopkeeper then puts inside another plastic bag! So I also found myself carrying around rubbish until I found a convenience store with its recycling cans.

One thing that astonished me is that despite the inconvenience there was hardly any litter in Japan. This suggested that littering is related more to culture than convenience.

Jenny

Cindy- I'm quite certain the trash song varies from area to area, but one of ours was definitely Fur Elise. I lived in Yilan and Luodong, and there were different songs depending on the neighborhood. But the sound quality on all of them is reminiscent of the ice cream trucks of the 80s!

Also, maybe just because we were out toward the "countryside," our recycling trucks also had bins for what we were told was "pig trash." We had to keep our organic trash (mostly food leftovers) in a separate bin that rode on the trash truck. And we were told by our local hosts that those pins were fed to pigs.

Tyler

The apartment building services sound identical to every apartment I've ever lived in NYC, it's just embedded into the price of rent, and the building supers/porters don't have to put out the trash at a specific time, but they do collect and repackage it after I drop it down the chute.

carol

I lived a year in Taipai and remember the trash pick up. The problem with it was that I was rarely in my rented room. Also, despite this rosey picture of good city services, other services were missing. The air was terribly polluted and so was every waterway in Taiwan. I was there on a Fulbright ...all over the country...and it was a grand experience for which I'm grateful. On the other hand, rats are every where, the feral dogs are heart wrenching, and you can still buy dead kittens and live snakes to eat in the night markets if you know where to go. IMO, the best of Taiwan is the passion for democracy and willingness of people to participate freely in it...to demand their rights...and hold politicians accountable. Strikes and protests were common and often successful and the people were very kind to me and unfailingly honest.

Cobacoba98

My local district in Taichung had an election, and the new guy instituted multiple trash collection times per day. Awesome, because before if you weren't home, you could hardly get rid of your trash.

Cory

This article is very timely for me because I was just visiting Taipei a couple weeks ago and saw the musical trash trucks. I took a short video clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKt1LThV89E

You can see the recycle truck behind the trash truck.

Monica Tang

It was a very nice surprise to me when I found out that my hometown was an important part of this episode. I was born and raised in Taipei, came to the US 11 years ago. This policy "No Garbage on the Ground" started maybe about 15 years ago, I can't recalled the exact time. I was the person to take out the garbage since I was 9. Before the policy, we left our garbage at the corner of our block and the garbage truck would come to collect it later. Of course, that corner was kind of dirty and smelly. After that, there's no more stinky spot at the block, and the streets were cleaner, too. About 10 years ago, the new policy came alone that you have to paid for the garbage bags. Last time I visit my parents in Taipei, my dad told me that our garbage dropped to about only 1/3. They are doing the recycle very well, also composting. I'm very proud of Taipei in this part and wish New York can do the same.

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Monica Tang

When I heard the ice cream truck in NYC for the first time, I thought it was the garbage truck...:P
And when I heard the music played in the podcast, I couldn't help laughing. For one, I had no idea how funny it sounds to Americans; two, I never thought that I would miss the garbage truck music, but I guess I do...