In Taiwan, When You Hear Beethoven, It’s Time to Take Out the Trash

In Taiwan, When You Hear Beethoven, It’s Time to Take Out the Trash

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The canary-yellow garbage truck rumbled along the narrow street, past bubble tea shops and squat apartment buildings, blasting into the chilly night air a tinny rendition of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”

To much of the world, the classical melody is the (too) ubiquitous song of youthful piano lessons and children’s toys. But for the residents of Taiwan, the jingle is a call to action, the start of a nightly ritual, a signal to tie up those plastic bags and come on downstairs: It’s trash collection time.

“I enjoy taking out the trash because it’s a chance to catch up with my friends,” said Kusmi, 52, who is originally from Indonesia and now lives in Taipei, the island’s capital, where she works as a caregiver to the elderly.

The yellow trash truck — and a smaller white recycling truck behind it — heaved to a stop in front of a brightly lit convenience store in a middle-class residential neighborhood in Xinyi District, Taipei’s financial center.

A team of garbage collectors hopped down and began setting out an array of cans, including separate receptacles for paper, plastic, glass, metal, raw food (for compost) and cooked food (for pig feed.)

For the next 20 minutes, what had been a subdued street scene transformed into something akin to a neighborhood block party as residents, old and young, converged on the trash truck from every direction. They came on foot, by bicycle and on scooters, lugging their presorted trash in carts and plastic bags. They wore jeans, store uniforms and sweatpants. Some brought their pets.

And yes, there were Crocs, those universal take-out-the-trash shoes.

“Sometimes I bring out the garbage by myself, sometimes we come out together,” said Xiang Zhong, 18, a high school student who was there with a group of friends. The faint stink of garbage suffused the air.

“I think it’s a good system,” Mr. Xiang said. “It helps keep Taiwan clean.”

Waste collection systems vary around the world, but no place does it quite like Taiwan. Visit any city or rural town and five days a week, rain or shine, you’ll find people idling on the side of the road with bags at their side, waiting for the garbage trucks.

Some pass the time looking at their phones. Others catch up on gossip. All have their ears open for those first bars of “Für Elise” or “Maiden’s Prayer,” a flowing piano melody by the 19th-century Polish composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska that is the other tune of choice for Taiwan’s trash trucks.

It’s all part of a decades-old waste management policy in Taiwan under which “trash is not allowed to touch the ground.” Officials insist that forcing people to hand-deliver their trash to the trucks — as opposed to wheeling out their bins for a later pickup or tossing the garbage into a dumpster — has been essential to the transformation of a place once nicknamed “garbage island” into a clean, largely litter-free society.

“Through this system we can avoid garbage piling up and keep our environment clean,” said Yang Chou-mou, an official at the environmental protection bureau in charge of sanitation work in Xinyi District.

The system has also fostered a sense of community in many neighborhoods, helping strengthen the civil society that undergirds Taiwan’s vibrant democracy.

There are stories of couples who met while waiting in line for the trash pickup. In 2018, a candidate for Taiwan’s legislature in the city of Kaohsiung followed the garbage truck so he could campaign at pickup sites.

Of course, there are still the antisocial types who just want to dump their trash and leave. And some who live in upscale apartments have building management take care of their trash.

Concerns about the coronavirus have also meant people are more wary of interacting at pickup times. Still, people said just being able to see familiar faces — even if partly obscured by masks — has been a source of solace at a time when the pandemic has left many feeling isolated.

Glimpses of that humanity were on display on a recent winter evening in Taipei.

Kusmi, the caregiver, was pulled aside by a friend who handed her a gift of spaghetti in Tupperware and some oranges. Elsewhere, Lin Yu-wen, 78, bent over to help her neighbor and longtime friend, 91-year-old Yu Tzu-tsu, toss out a stack of old newspapers.

“We’re retired, we don’t have anything to do all day, so it’s nice to come out and see friends,” said Ms. Lin, a retired housekeeper.

Ms. Lin and Ms. Yu are old enough to recall the days when Taipei’s streets were strewn with litter and the island’s landfills overflowed. The situation became so dire, and residents so angry, that starting in the 1990s, the government initiated a waste-management overhaul.

In Taipei, residents were ordered to buy blue government-issued trash bags as part of a “Pay as You Throw” system, effectively creating a tax on producing garbage as an incentive to throw out less.

Around the city, more than 4,000 garbage collection points were set up, and most public trash cans were removed to make illegal dumping harder. Fines were slapped on those caught littering.

The measures worked. In 2017, Taiwan had a household recycling rate of over 50 percent, second only to Germany, according to Eunomia, an environmental consulting firm in Britain. It is also among the world’s leaders in the least waste produced per person.

The role that the trash trucks have played in Taiwan’s success shouldn’t be overlooked, said Nate Maynard, a Taipei-based expert in Taiwan’s waste management and host of the podcast “Waste Not, Why Not.”

“It forces you to come face to face with your own trash production,” Mr. Maynard said. “You have to deal with it, to carry it, whereas in the U.S. and a lot of other parts of the world, trash is something that just goes away.”

It remains a mystery how “Für Elise” and “Maiden’s Prayer” were chosen. Some say a health official chose the Beethoven song after overhearing his daughter playing it on the piano. Others say the trucks came preprogrammed with the melodies.

One thing is clear: The two jingles have become integral to the soundtrack of Taiwan, reliably drawing a crowd the way the Mister Softee jingle does elsewhere. When the southern city of Tainan dared to deviate by playing English language lessons over the loudspeakers, no one came out.

Despite what seems the effectiveness of Taiwan’s approach, not everyone is happy with the system.

Some have complained that the music is too loud. Others, like Charles Su, have expressed frustration about having to plan their lives around the trash collection times. Mr. Su, 30, said he occasionally had to come up with excuses to leave early from his biotechnology job so he could make it in time for the pickup.

“It feels like the schedule was set up for grandmas and grandpas who are home all day and have nothing to do,” said Mr. Su. “It’s pretty annoying.”

Officials, though, are adamant: The system is here to stay.

“There’s no way we can go back,” said Mr. Yang, the environmental protection official. “We need this system.”

Huang Yan-wen, a trash collector in Xinyi District, has heard “Für Elise” played on a loop five days a week, nearly every week of the year, for the past 25 years. He insists he is not sick of the tune.

“I’m so used to it,” shrugged Mr. Huang, 55, as he prepared to head out to make his evening rounds.

For others, the songs can trigger an almost Pavlovian response. Mr. Maynard, the waste expert, recalled walking in a park in London several years ago when he heard “Maiden’s Prayer” playing from a merry-go-round.

“I felt my blood rush,” Mr. Maynard said, “and I wanted to grab my garbage bag.”

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