Talking Trash in Taiwan

Speaker's Corner: Julia Ross thought she knew something about waste disposal. Then she moved to Taipei and watched masters in action.

03.20.08 | 9:45 AM ET

TaipeiWhen I planned for my year in Taiwan two summers ago, trash was the last thing on my mind. The more obvious challenges of moving abroad—finding an apartment, buying a cellphone and navigating the bus system—preoccupied me in the weeks before my departure. I worried most about my full-time study of Mandarin, the challenge of mastering the language’s four tones and the intricate arcs, fishhooks and grids that make up written Chinese.

But strange things happen when you cross cultures. Unexpected frustrations vex you, and habits ingrained over years suddenly come up for negotiation. So it was for me and waste disposal.

On this leaf-shaped island of 23 million people off China’s coast, trash matters. My Taipei landlady was the first to make that point, when she gave me a crash course on how to dispose of household waste like a local. First, buy city-approved trash bags at the corner 7-Eleven. Then, meet the garbage truck five nights a week at the mouth of a nearby alley. Finally, heave the bags onto the truck yourself.

You’ll recognize the truck, she said, because it plays music—a tinny version of the Beethoven classic “Für Elise,” as I soon discovered.

With help from the melodic warning, I figured out where and when to show up. Understanding the mandatory recycling system was more troublesome. In Taiwan, recycling trucks tag along behind trash collectors, but they accept only certain items on certain nights. According to the strictly enforced schedule, plastic bottles must be separated from plastic wrapping and bags, and flat recyclables, such as Styrofoam trays and cardboard dumpling boxes, are collected only on Mondays and Fridays. Show up with bundled newspapers on the wrong night, and you’ll get an earful from the sanitation worker. Feigning ignorance of Mandarin won’t absolve you, either.

Waiting for the garbage truck is one of Taiwan’s liveliest communal rites. Many evenings I watched food vendors from the night markets, buckets of eggshells in hand, chat up convenience store clerks alongside Filipina nannies, who traded kitchen appliances as if they were at a Sunday morning swap meet. Freelance recyclers keen to make a few dollars showed up to collect cardboard and newspapers, which they would sell back to the city. An alderman with a whistle kept traffic at bay.

These curbside jaunts were my initiation into Taiwan’s broader waste-disposal network, made up of municipal employees and regular citizens all doing their part to keep the system humming. Watching the city’s disparate trash tribes at work shamed me into compliance after years as a half-hearted recycler back home. I even came to feel a peculiar solidarity with the “ladies with tongs,” the city transit and university sanitation workers who spend their days sifting through garbage bins in subway stations and on university campuses in search of aluminum cans. And I admired the swift vigilance of food-court employees as they swept fast-food wrappers and Styrofoam cups off my table into shallow baskets before I had time to look for a trash can. (There aren’t any.)

Then you have nosy landlords, who, depending on the housing arrangement, are sometimes tasked with sorting their tenants’ trash. One American friend, upon surrendering several bags of refuse soon after he moved into a studio apartment in Taipei, was dumbfounded when his landlady scolded him for eating too many candy bars and not enough fruit. Humiliated, he bought a bag of oranges the next day, hoping she would notice the peels he planned to leave on top of the pile.

Taiwanese friends tell me that 10 years ago, their capital’s sidewalks were drowning in rotting garbage. You’d never know it today, thanks to the introduction of a per-bag trash-collection fee to discourage consumption, a charge for plastic bags at supermarkets and the rigorous recycling policy now in effect. These changes created an infinitely cleaner city. Even more impressive, they fueled a sense of civic responsibility in a place where democracy is still taking root. Just as the Taiwanese invest in their young representative government, they invest in a clean environment. There’s a palpable appreciation for hard-won progress.

Back in the United States, green awareness has seemingly taken a quantum leap in the past year, with talk of carbon offsets—a term I hadn’t heard when I boarded my plane for Taipei—lacing the conversations of passengers on long-haul flights. But I’ve been home for several months now, and U.S. consumption patterns look as robust as ever, with the same limited patchwork of recycling opportunities available. Reducing your “carbon footprint” is a hip way to fight global warming, but what about the trash generated by last night’s takeout?

Before my year in Taiwan, I’ll admit I was a lazy environmentalist, dutifully recycling wine bottles and newspapers and opting for paper over plastic, but never willing to go the extra mile if it wasn’t convenient. It’s no longer so easy to make excuses. Living in a place where I was expected to use what I bought and recycle every last yogurt cup and juice box left me with a new appreciation for what clean streets mean in a civil society, and the realization that I’m responsible for everything I consume. That’s as good a Chinese lesson as any.

Photo by tylerdurden via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

4 Comments for Talking Trash in Taiwan

Jerry Haines 03.20.08 | 8:15 PM ET

A few years ago my wife and I spent three days in Taipei as a last stop in a month-long trip to SE Asia.  I’m not a fan of Starbucks, but the newly-built one near our hotel was a comfortable place to begin the day (after grabbing a street-food breakfast from one of the vendors nearby).  And the Starbucks staff was just SO enthusiastic about their exotic outpost there in the land of tea houses.

One morning as we sat in Starbucks’s second floor lounge, we observed the arrival of a street paving crew, ready to pave the short alley adjacent to the store.  But apparently no one had informed the driving public, as all the parking places were occupied by cars.

Not to worry.  They brought in a big forklift, which efficiently lifted each car out of its position and hustled it around the corner, with no apparent notification to the cars’ owners.  When the cars were gone, the paving crew moved in, laid down the tar surface, and then tidied it up.  The forklift returned and put the cars back where they had been. 

Total elapsed time?  About one latte’s worth—approximately 45 minutes.

Julia Ross 03.20.08 | 10:08 PM ET

Jerry - great story.  I spent many an afternoon last year on the second floor of a major Starbucks downtown (possibly the same one) studying my Chinese characters. As you might recall, there are no trash cans at Starbucks, either. They have small bookshelves where you place your paper cups and muffin wrappers; the staff come by every half hour to collect and sort appropriately. And, yes, the staff are *exceedingly* friendly.

Waterproof Laptop Cases 03.21.08 | 6:17 AM ET

Taiwan is pretty gud u might be enjoying there.

Eva Holland 03.22.08 | 5:08 PM ET

Cool post, Julia.

I had the opposite adaptation to make, studying in rural northern England at a posh school where any hint of activism got you labelled a zealous PC hippie. The first time I asked whether we might possibly have a recycling program put in place, I got stared out of the room. (Don’t even ask what they said when I suggested that the word ‘Eskimo’ isn’t terribly polite where I come from, and that the people in question prefer the term ‘Inuit’.) So I spent a whole year throwing cans and bottles into the trash and trying to learn not to flinch every time.

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