“Für Elise” is one of the world’s most widely-recognized pieces of music. The Beethoven melody has been played by pianists the world over, and its near-universal recognition has been used to attract customers for companies as big as McDonald’s and as small as your local ice-cream truck. But if you hear the song playing on the streets of Taiwan, accompanied by the low grumble of an engine, the only ice-cream you’ll find if you follow the tune will be the soupy remains of a neighbor’s Häagen-Dazs. In Taiwan, “Für Elise” means it is time to take out your trash. Directly out to the truck. Yourself.
In the capital city of Taipei, trucks play two different songs along their garbage-routes (the other one is “A Maiden’s Prayer” by composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska).
Five nights a week, Taipei residents head to out to designated street corners, where the yellow garbage trucks will stop for a few minutes (and turn off their music), so that people toss their bags of trash in themselves. Despite the chaos that occasionally ensues when an entire street rushes toward the same vehicle, the collection system in place prior to this was far more unpleasant.
Before the singing trucks took effect in the 1980s, citizens of Taipei heaped their bags into large, pest-ridden dumpsters placed around the city blocks. Trash would spill over onto the street corners and fester in the tropical weather. The smell was terrible. And it attracted rats. Lots of rats. In the mid-1980s, Taiwan pushed for democratization, tried to expand industry, and wanted to attract tourists. They hoped clean streets would help cement their reputation as a member of the first world.
During the resulting environmental push, Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency devised this new musical pick-up system, powered by the people and enforced with strict penalties for failing to comply. According to popular myth, “Für Elise” was chosen as the calling card because the head of the EPA at the time had a daughter who would practice it frequently on the piano.
Today, visitors would never know the city of Taipei used to have piles of garbage strewn about the streets. Trash trucks come through regularly, stopping up to three times a day, five days a week on their routes around the city. After work or before bed, residents gather their waste, head to a designated street corner, and wait for the big yellow truck.
The trucks only accept trash bags officially sanctioned by the government of Taiwan which come in a distinctive blue color, complete with an official seal. The bags range in price and size, from 3 liters to 120 liters. The most popular bag is 25 liters (similar to a tiny bathroom wastebasket liner), which costs about $5 for a pack of 20. This effectively makes a pay-as-you-waste model, incentivizing citizens to recycle and compost as much as possible since those services are offered for free. The musical garbage trucks are tailed by a recycling truck, where workers help the residents sort their recyclables and compost into thirteen distinct bins. Should people fail to sort their materials properly, the government will fine them up to $200.
If this all sounds a little complicated and tedious, that’s because, well…it is. At least to an American ear. It’s hard to imagine a system like this working in countries like the United States. Every city in the US has a different method of trash pickup, but one uniting factor is that our pickup systems strive to be invisible. The trucks make great efforts to come when people are working or sleeping (or trying to sleep), and time their arrivals to minimize their impact on traffic. We take trash and recycling out to bins, toss it down chutes, or pile it in a dumpster, and it vanishes out of our lives, without a second thought.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycle and compost about 34% of their trash, a lower percentage than most rich countries. This is in part because the different systems across the nation are disjointed; the US has around 9,800 different municipal recycling plants, each operating under a different set of rules put in place by their respective cities or contracted companies.
That said, some American cities are doing better than others.
In San Francisco, a private company called Recology takes care of the city’s waste, recycling, and compost. Their system, paid for by homeowners and landlords, manages to recycle around 90% of what can be recycled.
Recology has set up some similar incentives to the system in Taipei: for instance, trash bin pickup service is way more expensive than recycling or compost bin pickup service. Still, though, Recology’s main focus is keeping customers happy, which means making the process as simple and stress-free as possible. So they send a truck to your curb to pick up your waste, and they don’t even expect you to sort your own paper or plastic. Instead, they collect it all, metal cans mixed with plastic bottles mixed with scraps of paper, and they send it off to their recycling center, which process over 600 tons of recycling per day.
The recyclables make their way along a complex series of conveyor belts and get separated into 16 categories by a staff of 173 people … along a series of complex, automated systems.
Recology’s specialized machinery uses everything from magnets to fish ladders to optic sensors to sort recyclables out. Using these types of advanced technology and employing a large workforce adds significant cost to their operation, which is then passed on to the consumer. However, this single-stream recycling also makes recycling easier for people who otherwise might not do it at all, perhaps because they’re confused about what type of plastic goes in what bin, or simply because they’d rather be doing something else. Each system has its own benefits and drawbacks, but Taiwan seems to be an example of a broad-scale revolution in waste management that has successfully taken hold with its entire population.
Perhaps things would be different for Americans if we all had to watch our garbage pile up in our homes, without taking it out to a bin or throwing it down a chute—without it magically disappearing with relatively little effort on our part. It would certainly be a shift if we had to set aside time from our days to catch the garbage and recycling trucks coming down the street. We might, like Taiwan, start to produce less junk, or at least discover that we can recycle and compost more of the junk we do produce. But then again, hearing the same two songs, night after night, five nights a week, might also start to slowly drive us all insane.