WENSHAN DISTRICT, TAIPEI CITY — No blogs for quite some time, as we’ve had a bit of a rough time with recent COVID-19 developments: the start of school was delayed, data collection plans are suddenly quite vague, and we’re adjusting course content for students unable to make it back to Taiwan.
In the face of uncertainty, I have a new-found appreciation for the mundane.
That tune you hear? I hear this same tune outside my window, every night around 9:30 pm. Mine, not coming from the finely tuned strings of a Steinway. Instead, it blasts from the belly of a bellicose (more on that in a bit) and less-than-beautiful, somewhat-smelly, yellow beast. Mine is “The Maiden’s Prayer” and its one of several classical tunes favored by the local garbage trucks.
Garbage collection in Taiwan is equal parts peculiar, normal, chaotic, and tightly regulated. First, a live scene of the action — I was quick enough to capture the scene from a recent collection, from my 9th floor balcony.
The process starts with a few city-wide feats of civil engineering. Mainly, a stroll around Taipei will reveal few to no garbage cans. Anyone can carry their own personal bags, but most stores require a small purchase for a white shopping bag … which should definitely not be confused with a blue garbage bag. Neither of these bags should be confused with a standard garbage liner, which carries no official capacity (but still, good for keeping your house nice and organized). Each of these bags are sold at most convenience stores, and for those keeping score at home: blue is for garbage (moderately priced), white is for shopping (they’re the most expensive, and you’ll get a stiff penalty if you throw away a white bag), and pink is for home use (the cheapest). However, you can use pink (and even white) for recyclables, which the city will gladly take … so long as they follow the collection schedule. Prices wont’ break the bank here, as we’re talking about spending between 25 cents and a few dollar US, but it’s the scarcity and the extra step that count.
It sounds confusing, but it’s not. I had two “bad runs” — once where I tried to toss a pink back into the garbage truck, and once when I tried to bring down glass bottles on paper recycling day. It’s no fun to haul your waste back up nine flights of stairs, but it’s a good lesson in situational awareness. It’s also a good reminder as to how much one person can produce, if they’re not careful.
As for what to do with the bags? As you see in the video, when the sounds ring out, it’s time to lug your garbage out to the curb. No trash cans, no home delivery–you’re responsible for carrying your own waste. And you better do it quickly, because the trucks don’t hang around forever. Blue bags to the front truck, and recyclables to the back truck.
All the while, the digitized concierto plays.
Soon, the trucks depart and the music thins out. Yet the people stick around. I’ve already met a few of my neighbors in the ad-hoc “third place” of community discourse that forms around the recently departed trucks. Perhaps there’s something about all of us standing around, often in our “comfy clothes,” stripped to bearing our rubbish for all to see. We all seem a bit relieved to be rid of it all, and we’re not quite in a hurry to go back to our homes just yet. I suspect that if my Chinese were better, I’d learn much more about the neighborhood, the gossip, the politics, and all of the other bits of social capital that I miss out on during the day.
For a few minutes, I really do live in Wenshan District. I can understand about 5% of the conversation around me, but I blend in. Just another person, cleaning up his apartment.
The city (and really, the nation) have made a concerned effort to make citizens more aware of their footprint. And it’s working. From a recent Buzzworthy story:
“Before the implementation the system, Taiwan was known as ‘Garbage Island’. … They were producing 3,296 tonnes per day and recycling only 5% of it. Today, they have reduced that number by more than 2/3, of which they recycle an impressive 55%.”Bush, J. (2019, May 15), Taiwan Has Found A Brilliant Way To Get People To Recycle More. Buzzworthy, https://www.buzzworthy.com/taiwan-garbage-disposal/
Even our smallest food scraps are recycled, as I noticed after preparing a recent meal. I instinctively reached for the garbage disposal button and instead, noticed my larger cuttings gathered in a removable cartridge. These are collected in small bags and then dumped into a separate container on the garbage trucks — destined for pig farmers to feed their hogs.
Tonight, I’ll bring a small baggie of food scraps, and they’ll go in the can place behind the garbage truck and in front of the recycling truck. Here, myself and my neighbors will dump the scraps into a larger container, and we’ll feed the local livestock this way.
And lo, the circle is compete.
With all of this, the mundane is somewhat exciting. Garbage collection (or rather, waste management) becomes a forethought rather than an afterthought: waste less, organize more, and when you hear that next classical note … have your house-slippers ready or you’ll have to spend another day in your own filth.
Of course, you could also just generate less trash. =)