Separation Anxiety

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
If you can recognize any piece of classical music, I bet it’s this one. This is Für Elise, written by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1810. Maybe it reminds you of piano lessons you took when you were a kid.

Avery Trufelman:
In my town, it was also the song the ice cream truck used to play.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
But if you live in Taiwan and you hear a truck rumbling down the street playing Für Elise, it doesn’t mean it’s time to buy a popsicle. It means it’s time to take out your trash because this is what a garbage truck in Taiwan sounds like.

[Garbage Truck playing ‘Für Elise’]

Avery Trufelman:
This garbage truck song isn’t just supposed to be cute and fun, although it is also supposed to be cute and fun. The singing garbage trucks are all a part of a completely different way of thinking about waste disposal. Completely different, that is, from the way that we think about it in the United States.

Roman Mars:
In the late 1990s, Taiwan recycled only five percent of its waste. Today, Taiwan recycles well over half. The country is now among the world’s top recyclers. And what changed in this period has a lot to do with the way that the trash is collected.

Avery Trufelman:
Okay, Für Elise isn’t the only song the trucks play. In Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, the trucks also play this song.

[Garbage Truck playing ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’]

Roman Mars:
That’s ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’ by Polish composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska.

Avery Trufelman:
And in Taipei City, the garbage trucks just alternate between these two songs.

Jasmine Huang:
They take turns to play these two songs, two music, they play in Taipei City. Even the elementary school kids can sing the song, so we have brainwashed.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Dr. Jasmine Huang and she grew up in Taipei.

Jasmine Huang:
Since I was a child, I knew that every time when the garbage truck comes, we will hear… (sings bars to Für Elise)

Roman Mars:
Now, the singing garbage trucks are such a part of life, it’s hard to imagine a time before them. But that time actually wasn’t too long ago.

Jasmine Huang:
We used to have a lot of big dumpsters. So they would have a lot of rats, mosquitoes and things like that, and it’s not good for our health.

Roman Mars:
Just a couple of decades ago, Taipei residents threw their trash in two massive, smelly dumpsters on the streets.

Avery Trufelman:
Garbage would end up in piles on the sidewalk and in parks. It would fester in the heat and it was just nasty.

Roman Mars:
Then Taiwan’s democratization accelerated in the mid-1980s and created this desire to tidy up.

Mary Alice Haddad:
Being a modern country means being a clean country. And when you have foreign visitors coming and visiting your capital, they shouldn’t think, “Oh, this place is dirty.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is Mary Alice Haddad, chair of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University.

Mary Alice Haddad:
In Taiwan, the pro-democracy movement got fully entangled with the environmental movement. And so as all those things moved together in the late 80s, early 90s, then the pro-democracy and pro-environment agendas got onto the public consciousness.

Roman Mars:
Also, the environmental movement had a practical end. Taiwan was running out of space to actually put piles of trash because it’s a small island, an extremely populous small island.

Mary Alice Haddad:
There’s not that much space where you’re going to stick all your junk. Whereas in the United States, there has been historically a sense of the untamed, untapped, endless wilderness; and you could just throw your junk into the wilderness and it would go away and you wouldn’t have to worry about anymore.

Avery Trufelman:
Not true in Taipei.

Mary Alice Haddad:
It’s a big city, but it’s really clean, and the subways are clean and the stores are clean and the sidewalks are clean, and it’s really pleasant to be there.

Roman Mars:
You’d never know that the city used to have piles of garbage littering the streets. Taipei and a number of other Taiwanese cities reduced the amount of trash by changing the way that trash got collected.

Erin Newport:
“Take a look at my garbage.”

Avery Trufelman:
This is my friend Erin Newport. She lives in Taipei, where the garbage truck comes five nights a week. Evenings, like after work.

Erin Newport:
“It comes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”

Roman Mars:
In Erin’s neighborhood, trucks come twice in the evening, at five and at seven.

Avery Trufelman:
“Normally, you’d take out the trash once a week on one of the days.”

Erin Newport:
“Ah, yeah, usually one. I mean, it’s kind of hard sometimes to find the time to always be home at five or seven.”

Avery Trufelman:
Erin has to gather her own garbage and recycling, and bring it out to a designated street corner, and wait for the big yellow truck to come with an ear perked for the sound of “Für Elise” or “A Maiden’s Prayer” coming down the block.

Roman Mars:
Basically, this is a bin-less system or a garbage can-less system. Your trash goes right from your house to the truck, ideally, without ever touching the street. You just have to bring out your garbage in a special bag.

Erin Newport:
“I pay my garbage bill by purchasing these blue Taipei City garbage bags.”

Avery Trufelman:
These official blue garbage bags say City of Taipei on them, and each is emblazoned with a stamp.

Erin Newport:
“I buy them from the convenience store across the street.”

Roman Mars:
The official blue garbage bags come in a number of different sizes, ranging from 3 liters to 120 liters. So the more garbage you throw away, the more it’ll cost you.

Avery Trufelman:
And although Taipei residents have to pay for their garbage by the bag, recycling and compost are free. You don’t need to buy bags for them at all.

Roman Mars:
You can just take out your recycling in nonofficial plastic bags, and you can generate as much compost and recycling as you’d like. So residents are incentivized to recycle more and throw out less.

Avery Trufelman:
I watched Erin sort of all of her recyclables into perfect categories.

Erin Newport:
“These are the cans, cans and bottles. So we have a few tea bottles.”

Roman Mars:
So in Taipei, every yellow garbage truck is followed by a small white recycling truck, which is basically a cart full of different bins.

Avery Trufelman:
There’s a bin for plastic bottles, one for glass bottles, different metals and cans, papers and cardboards, and a compost bucket for raw food waste and a compost bucket for cooked food waste.

Roman Mars:
Taipei residents have to sort their recycling into all these different categories themselves. Although in the white recycling trucks, there are officials and volunteers who can help instruct you about which item goes where.

Avery Trufelman:
So Erin, her housemates and I got all of her bags of trash and different kinds of recycling sorted out, and then we walked about a block down the street to wait with the rest of her neighbors who were all clutching official blue garbage bags.

Erin Newport:
“Quite a lot of people have gathered here today. I’d say this is maybe larger than your average crew.”

Avery Trufelman:
And then moment we were waiting for.

[Garbage Truck playing ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’]

Avery Trufelman:
“Yes.”

Avery Trufelman:
There was this mad dash of people swarming to the school bus yellow garbage truck and the white recycling truck.

Avery Trufelman:
“Okay, this one… Yeah, people are tossing it in.”

Avery Trufelman:
Swiftly tossing their separate recyclables in the bins, tossing their blue bags in the garbage truck and running away. It was madness, extremely well-organized madness.

Avery Trufelman:
“That was so chaotic.”

Roman Mars:
In this system, for all its chaos, has been working. Taipei City used to produce 3,296 tons of trash a day. Today, the city produces about 1000 tons a day.

Avery Trufelman:
That is according to Mr. Chen, one of 65 officials who supervise the garbage trucks and their routes. I met him at a garbage pickup site where Jasmine Huang acted as interpreter.

Jasmine Huang:
“Avery, this is Mr. Chen.”

Mr. Chen:
“Hi.”

Avery Trufelman:
“Hi.”

Jasmine Huang:
“And he is the supervisor.”

Avery Trufelman:
“Nice to meet you.”

Roman Mars:
In his district, Chen oversees 20 garbage truck routes and all those trucks have to make sure that citizens are sorting properly.

Jasmine Huang:
If they find garbage into recycling bag, the people here were tell them that you cannot do that one more time, otherwise you will get a ticket.

Avery Trufelman:
And how much is the ticket?

Jasmine Huang:
$200 US dollars, but that’s the maximum.

Roman Mars:
And you might think this is such a drag. There must be some people who buck the system by tossing their trash into public trash cans. Well, there are hardly any public trash cans in Taipei. They’re only in train stations or at bus stops. And those are little, they come up just below your knees.

Avery Trufelman:
So in Taipei, for the most part, if you eat a candy or buy a coffee, you just take your empty coffee cup or your candy wrapper, put it in your pocket and bring it home. It’s your trash, that you put in your blue bag, and bring out to the truck, yourself.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to imagine a system like this working here in the US. Every city here has a different method of trash pickup. But across the board, the uniting factor is that our American trash pickup systems strive to be invisible. The trucks make great efforts to come when we’re working or sleeping or trying to sleep, keeping out of the way of traffic and not disturbing the flow of the city. We take our trash and our recycling out to bins or down a shoot or to a dumpster, and it’s gone. We don’t have to think about it.

Avery Trufelman:
According to the EPA, Americans are recycle and compost about 34% of their trash, which is less than most rich countries.

Roman Mars:
But some American cities do a lot better.

Robert Reed:
San Francisco has probably the most forward recycling program in North America.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Robert Reed. He’s the representative of Recology, the company that takes care of San Francisco’s waste, recycling and compost.

Roman Mars:
Unlike Taipei, which has a public trash pickup system, many waste pickup services in the US are private companies and we are the customers. That’s how it works with Recology, which means they’ve got to keep their customers happy.

Robert Reed:
Our number one focus is to provide superior customer service and our next focus is to do as much recycling as possible, and to make recycling easy and convenient for customers.

Avery Trufelman:
Recology has set up similar incentives to the system in Taipei, where trash pickup is way more expensive than recycling or compost pickup. For example, in San Francisco, recycling and compost cost about $2 a month per bin. Trash is about $26 a month per bin. But above all, Recology system is meant to be simple and stress-free. It has to be, if you want people to keep paying for your service.

Robert Reed:
People have a lot of demands in their lives. We understand that. Recycling might not be the very first thing. They got to make their boss happy, they got to pay their mortgage. Garbage and recycling and composting might not always be at the top of the list. We understand that.

Roman Mars:
Basically, instead of putting the onus on the citizens to separate the different kinds of compost and recycling for themselves, Recology does the brunt of the work; sorting, so we don’t have to.

Avery Trufelman:
San Francisco, like a lot of other American cities that collect recycling, uses one catchall recycling bin. So you throw your cans, your bottles, your cardboard all in the same place. And then all those different materials end up in a facility like Recycle Central.

Robert Reed:
So this is Recycle Central. This is the large recycling plant on Pier 96 where we sort all the materials from the blue bin, the bottles, the cans, and the paper. We’re going to go inside now.

Avery Trufelman:
The facility is massive and it’s where Recology processes most of San Francisco recycling.

Robert Reed:
You can see them this great, big pile of recycling. This is from this morning. This is from one day, and we’re going to get this sorted out because we’ve got another big pile coming in tomorrow. So we do 600 tons a day here.

Roman Mars:
That 600-ton pile will wind its way up a huge, surreal web of conveyor belts, where some of the 173 people on staff will separate the recyclables into 16 categories of materials, with the help of some modern recycling equipment.

Robert Reed:
So we’ve got magnets and we have fish ladders that separate bottles and cans from paper. They’re on an angle and they temporarily suspend gravity.

Roman Mars:
And to make sure everything gets precisely sorted, there’s some real state-of-the-art technology, like this apparatus that separates clear plastic from colored plastic with optic sensors.

Robert Reed:
Right here, the scanner’s looking at the materials as they come by and when it sees a clear plastic, like a clear plastic water bottle, it hits it with a puff of air, and you can hear it. It’s expensive. It costs $3 million for this machine and it came from the Netherlands.

Avery Trufelman:
So this system, with all of its whirling, twirling conveyors and magnets and machinery and 173 employees, it’s dazzling and it makes less trash by doing more recycling.

Robert Reed:
And recycling creates 10 times more jobs than landfilling or incineration.

Avery Trufelman:
Of course, it also takes all the direct sorting out of the hands of the people who actually create the waste and charges them for the service instead. As a result, recycling in the US can be expensive.

Mary Alice Haddad:
I guess that’s part of the problem, to the extent that there’s pushback in recycling, which I’ve seen some of in the United States now. It’s often about the cost of it and how it’s very costly. And that’s true if you’re using these single-stream processes function, and it’s less true if the household does the separating.

Roman Mars:
That’s professor Mary Alice Haddad again. If your community wants to recycle, all that stuff needs to be separated and sorted, somehow, whether you use a $3 million machine from the Netherlands or compel an entire sweet potato-shaped island of people to stand on the corner at night.

Avery Trufelman:
The Taipei system is cheap and efficient because the city has conscripted their citizens as workers, and it’s been successful.

Mary Alice Haddad:
Taipei is a great example of a big, major, global metropolitan area that did not have a good garbage collection system not that long ago, and they have completely transformed, and it could be an example for us all.

Avery Trufelman:
Which is not to say we should necessarily copy Taipei’s system. What’s worked for them might not work for the US. But consider the American garbage truck creeping around at dawn or during work hours, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, trying to keep trash out of sight and out of mind.

Mary Alice Haddad:
You don’t really pay attention to it, but everyone should pay a lot of attention.

Roman Mars:
If we had to watch our garbage pile up in our homes without taking it out to the bin and had to set aside time in our days to catch the garbage and recycling trucks coming down the street, I bet we’d produce less junk. But I also think if I had to hear this song twice a night, five days a week, I would murder everybody.

Credits

Production

Producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Taipei resident Dr. Jasmine Huang; Mary Alice Haddad, Chair of East Asian studies at Wesleyan University; Taipei resident Erin Newport; trash collection supervisor Mr. Chen; and Robert Reed of Recology.

  1. Olivia Ho-Shing

    I just listened to this episode, and I thought it was so interesting! I was disappointed at the end that there was little discussion on the ideas about environmentalism and democracy that this represents. I think the Taiwanese system is such a successful example of a people engaging in their democracy by equally accepting responsibility for their waste, and their collective effect on the environment. And they even carry out their duty by gathering around a shared song – I think that’s lovely. I think those are important ideals that Americans could take from this example, instead of seeing it as just a government that has employed its citizens as workers, or an annoying song interrupting your personal day. I think promoting that sort of change in mentality about efforts like these would contribute positively to the global discussions about our impact on the environment, and countries like America especially giving deeper thought to our responsibilities over our current comforts. Thank you for bringing light to this story!

  2. AJ

    Thanks for another great episode. I once stayed at a friend’s house in Taipei. One night, she couldn’t come home to throw the trash so I had a chance to experience “Fur Elise” myself. However, instead of the mad dash to toss the trash in the right bin with a guy on the truck yelling at you (I wasn’t sure what to do), what I noticed while waiting on the street with the neighbors was how it was actually a pleasant social event for many people . I observed housewives gossiping, children horseplaying, and seniors greeting one another–it was indeed a nice bonding period with the people around you. It’s hard to imagine in a big city like Taipei, one can still experience this type of small town social interactions.

    1. And on recycle night, there are others who meet the truck, to take your recycling themselves to sell. The ones by my house in Tainan even throw your garbage onto the truck in exchange for what they can sort and resell.

  3. Ruby Chen

    Hi 99PI! Thanks for this meaningful episode!!! I’m from Taiwan and live in Berkeley now. Just found out about 99PI recently and listen to this episode this morning like a nostalgic surprise! I was literally smiling on the street while walking to work. Being so used to the trash and recycle routine in Taipei, I was really confused how people do it here, and was also skeptical about throwing everything recyclable in one or two bins – now I understand why and how it works in the background!

  4. Lynn Ceteras Huerta

    Oh, and the show was great. I happen to be a fortunate Recology client who can afford the service but I can see how this financial burden creates a disincentive, making recycling out of reach for most!!
    I’m glad this conversation is happening (but mostly I like hearing what your amazing children have to say)!

  5. After visiting Taiwan six months ago I only just managed to get the garbage truck song out of my head! But really, I was very happy to hear another story about Taiwan. There could be a whole podcast just about the brilliant design solutions they’ve come up with. It looks like you guys fell in love with it as much as I did.

  6. Great episode! I’m living since 5 years in Zürich, Switzerland, and the general garbage system here is similar. You need to buy special garbage bags and the recycling part is for free. It’s also quite a complex system, when you are new to the city, you get an instructions book :)

  7. Alex

    Long time listener, heard this episode on iTunes today and it blew my mind! I’m from Taiwan myself and your insights about our garbage disposal system is amazingly accurate and profound! Great work!

  8. S Johnson

    Garbage trucks in Taiwan were playing the “Maiden’s Prayer” tune well before the 1980s time frame mentioned in the article. I remember them playing the tune in the early 1970s when I lived in Taipei — just on 8 track or cassette instead of the current digital playback.

  9. DB

    The lack of understanding of costs was incredible in this episode. The fact that all of the voices given airtime praised the Taiwanese model of intruding on people’s time as “less expensive” truly illuminates the producers’ lack of understanding that time is inherently valuable, and that returns to scale typically reduce costs. It’s quite clear that the value of residents’ time in Taipei is not factored into this partisan calculus, and that only a cursory view was taken of the recycling market, without any willingness to investigate commonly held, but misguided assumptions known to anyone involved in the waste management sector.

    Further, solid waste is perhaps one of Earth’s least pressing environmental issues. When there are actual pressing issues to be concerned about, lamenting about the lack of recycling in the states, which has no lack of landfill space, is irresponsible and misguiding.

    I can only hope that 99 PI’s recent misguided political & moral foci are reduced, and that the show can turn away from such failures of normative analysis to return to its roots of interesting and excellent aesthetic investigation.

    1. Shin

      Please take back “the state has no lack of landfill space”. This’s just ridiculous. It just happened not to be next door to you. Law of mass balance. Things don’t disappear. Your garbage has been eaten by the food that we all are eating now. The whole point of this episode is to remind us to make less waste. This “moral foci” episode wouldn’t be made if this is not such an urgent topic we all need to think about. So please think about that.

  10. 99pi is surely the most consistently excellent podcast ever… so really disappointing to hear such bad, bad economics on this episode! Recycling is NOT cheaper if you used forced labor rather than paid labor for sorting; it’s more expensive, it’s just that the cost is hidden. Forcing people to sort their own recycling is like forcing people to do their own plumbing… it’s far more efficient to do whatever you do best, and use the money you earn from that to pay a plumber who can join pipes better than you can. Why is it acceptable to force people to sort their own recycling, when it’s clearly crazy to force people to do their own plumbing? The clue is in the “should” word heard in this episode. Please, 99pi, stay away from moral righteousness, try not to advocate counterproductive coercion and, if nothing else, learn some basic economics!

    1. Shin

      Your mindset is quite misplaced. The point is to think more about your waste, which you are responsible of. Yes, you make more money when time saved from doing recycling, but equally you use that “more money” to buy more things that eventually turns into waste, which again you don’t have time to recycle because busy making more money/waste. This episode pins down the thing you don’t want to think about in your head— that is your garbage. And that’s why you come up with that counter-productive excuse to back up your laziness. Please… you can’t run away from your garbage.

  11. John

    ^Who are these last two commentators??? “Counterproductive Coercion”? It sounds like bad spam bots.

    Plumbing requires a license. Sorting your recycling takes about 30 seconds. If sorting your recycling is like plumbing, it’s the equivalent of flushing your toilet. EVERY city all over the world has got to be better about trash. We’re destroying our oceans and planets. A follow up episode on ocean pollution and how we’re trying to clean them would be a great podcast.

  12. B

    I’m an American living in Taiwan and I really enjoyed this episode. However, while it’s true Taiwan deserves some praise for their improvement, it is in no way a perfect system. Personally, I find it difficult and sometimes impossible to be at home during the times the trucks come by, which means I sometimes embarrassingly need to take my trash to the nearby train station or convenience stores and use their bins, which is officially discouraged. Also, it puts trash disposal responsibility solely on the individual (as it should be), but with no public or private trash bins, littering in this country is rampant. You think after eating their candy bar Taiwanese actually put the wrapper in their pocket and take it home? Guess again. So congratulations Taiwan for making some great improvements, but the battle against garbage is far from over if you ask me. And I’m sure others who live here would agree. Great podcast nonetheless :)

  13. Rick

    Listening to the episode I found the basic premise of trying to get across the point that we as Americans, should do more to recycle. What I found a bit ironic was that at the end of the program as you were going through your sponsors, one of them was Blue Apron, who by their very concept generates a rather large amount of waste from all the packaging of small amounts.

  14. I live in Tainan, where “The Maiden’s Prayer” is the garbage truck tune. (Hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd8uR9qEBuc.
    Bored waiting for the truck, I composed 3 verses of doggerel to accompany it.

    Bring out your garbage and refuse, our truck is coming your way.
    And for the things you recycle, there’s one on alternate days.
    Environmental protection, a project worthy of praise.
    Making the city clean,
    for ev’ry family,
    property values raise.

    Batteries, lightbulbs and paint cans, these things are dangerous waste.
    Leftover food from the kitchen must go in it’s special place.
    Other things thrown on the truck will be burned, and pow’r generate.
    Learn and know ev’ry kind,
    for there’s a great big fine,
    if you don’t separate.

    People who serve this department should not be called garbage men.
    A goodly number are women, in fact, about six in ten.
    We take the things you’ve rejected, so we’d be happy if when,
    we come along your street,
    You’d give a smile and greet,
    your ever faithful friends.

  15. Tegan

    I lived in Taiwan for several years, and it was always funny the little scramble that the trash truck music would set off. It heard only Maiden’s Prayer where I was. When I told people that in the U.S., our trash trucks come only once a week, their faces would scrunch up in disgust. I tried to explain trash cans outside the house, but that didn’t seem much better. Ah, the strange things to be nostalgic for.

  16. Nik S

    Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska is pronounced Tekla Bondazhevska-Baranovska. Sorry, Roman’s pronunciation made me cringe.

    Otherwise, fantastic episode as always.

  17. Jonathan

    I saw one of these things winding its way up a street in this town on the edge of a cliff in Taiwan. It was playing Für Elise and I can attest to the fact that people will come running out of their houses and up the street to catch one and throw in their garbage.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rlWQiGDONDw

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