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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.