If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing that either you’ve just moved to Taiwan, you’re considering it, or you’re intrigued by its novel ways of doing things. In response to which I say Welcome! or Hell yeah! or Behold! Let’s talk about Taiwan’s garbage disposal system.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there is a lot of learning involved in moving to a new country. Often the things you have to learn are literally the most basic every-day things that you have been doing forever, but now you suddenly have to be conscious of doing them, and in a whole new way. There are new systems one must adapt to! It’s even harder if you don’t speak the local language (working on it, 可是我的中文不好). In Taiwan, taking out the trash is one of these things.
When my husband and I first moved here, it took us months to figure it out. It’s possible that I’m exaggerating. Those first months are quite a blur. That’s definitely, at the very least, what it seemed like. Not to say that our house was full of garbage for months on end (but not to not say that, either…). The thing with garbage here is this: there are no dumpsters, and there are no (okay, almost no) public trash cans. Unless you live in a more modern and upscale apartment building that has dumpsters or you pay for trash service, you have to physically put your trash (or recycling) in the garbage truck (or recycling truck) at the allocated locations at the allocated times.
Sounds simple enough, and it is. The tricky part is figuring out when and where those allocated times and places are. There are, as far as my research has yielded, no English schedules available (unless you live in Taipei, lucky you! Even this link’s route information is pretty difficult to decipher unless you have a pretty good mental map of the city, as it is essentially a list of addresses. Additionally, here’s what I could find for New Taipei City). “Then how can I find them!”, I hear you interject. I’m getting there.
We struggled to figure it out in those first months because we were so busy with our new jobs that we were never at home. And when we were, our only option was to listen for them. Perhaps you’ve heard that the garbage trucks in Taiwan play classical music. They play either Beethoven’s “Für Elise” or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “A Maiden’s Prayer”, depending on your area. “Play” is a word that is perhaps a little misleading. “Blare” might be more accurate. They are loud, with all the classical stylings of an ice-cream truck.
I made a little chart where I would mark down every sighting of a truck stop, until we found the nearest ones. But for the first month or so we had to walk several blocks away to the only place we actually knew when a truck stopped (at like 9:30 pm, might I add). But once you find your spot it becomes a normal part of daily life. I take my garbage down to the corner 3 or 4 times a week at 4:15 and greet my neighbors. After a while, you realize you’ve been conditioned, and every time you hear the music, you find yourself reaching for the nearest trash bag. I actually have a timer set on my phone for 10 minutes before the truck comes, so I have time to get it sorted without the panic or rush to get ready (sometimes I forget, okay, and I’m in PJs or something).
So that’s one way to go about it, and if you’re an android/PC user you might be stuck with that, unless you’re an outgoing person and aren’t afraid to ask your neighbors (do it! Taiwanese people are so nice). However if you have an iphone or an ipad you are in luck because NOW THERE IS A BETTER WAY! Since we got here, an app has been created by one Kevin Wolkober (hats off to you sir!), Taiwan Garbage Service. It covers Keelung, Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Yilan, Taichung, Hualien, Nantou, Tainan, Taitung, Kaohsiung and Pingtung. It displays as a map where you can zoom in to your area and click on any nearby truck – it will display the times it stops and the exact address. This app even has a game you can play while you’re waiting for the garbage truck, where you are the truck and you have to catch trash bags falling from the sky. The city of Tainan also released their own app a few years ago, although I haven’t tried this one. It’s possible there are others out there I have missed (likely all in Chinese).
The trucks drive the same route a couple of times a day at least so hopefully you can find one that works for you. They don’t come on Wednesdays and Sundays, and be mindful of national holidays because they can affect the schedule. There are food waste bins on the back of the garbage trucks (or maybe the recycling truck), where you can empty a bag (I have a container that I keep in the fridge and just bring with me to empty at trash time. It’s too hot here to leave such things sitting around, and you don’t want to attract any pests! Cockroaches are real here). The white recycling trucks follow the garbage trucks (see below). Don’t do what one of my friends did when they first got here and throw your bag into the back of the white truck. There’s actually someone in there to sort the recycling (he didn’t know!). That someone got hit full in the face with a sack, cigarette in mouth. You don’t want to be that guy!
Now I’ve heard tales about garbage and recycling workers being very strict about what bags you use and whether or not the recycling is sorted, and there are some interesting stories out there. I think this is probably most true in Taipei/New Taipei City. Keelung is more laidback and I’ve never had or witnessed any issues about specific bags etc. It’s true that there are specific trash bags for residents to buy, and colors will vary by district. They aren’t expensive, and can be easily found at any convenience or grocery store. Their purchase helps to finance the garbage and recycling system, and helps to incentivize people to throw away less. In a place with a dense population and little space for landfills, one of Taiwan’s biggest goals is to cut down on waste.
This is also why it’s good to separate out your food waste for compost. For a long time I put it off because I didn’t know what food items were acceptable. In years past, food scraps were used to feed Taiwan’s pigs, however after an outbreak of swine flu in China in 2018 policies changed to ensure food safety. Now the food waste is used only as fertilizer, so to be on the safe side I only include foods for compost (what to compost). Ask your local recycling man!
In terms of recycling, it’s good to do some basic sorting before passing it over. Here and here are some resources about recycling in Taiwan, what you can recycle and the various categories. I’ve heard that some recyclers won’t accept things until they have been sorted – again something that differs by area. I save my recycling for the recycling auntie, who always shows up alongside the recycling truck with her scooter and lots of bags for sorting everything. I do my best to organize it for her beforehand. It’s amazing how fast she works and how much stuff she can haul! A lot of older women in Taiwan make a living this way.
If you’re thinking about what a pain it’s going to be to wait for the garbage truck every day, or getting frustrated that there are no trash cans on the street, keep in mind that this new system has made Taiwan so much cleaner. Once called “garbage island”, Taiwan suffered the effects of its rapid economic and industrial growth of the 80s and 90s. In response to mounting pressure from its citizens and NGOs (inspiring story about the women behind Homemakers United here), the government decided to tackle the trash problem and passed the Waste Disposal Act in 1998, which laid the foundation for all of the progress made since. Taiwan now boasts a recycling rate of 55%, and people here generate half as much waste as they did in 1998 (source). Taiwan continues to seek ways to make waste disposal and recycling easier and more efficient, including these new machines in Taipei (I haven’t seen any yet, but I would love to have one in my neighborhood!):
I hope you found this helpful! It’s hard to move to a new country and learn how to live life all over again. But rest assured that it becomes as natural as breathing after a while. I actually enjoy my trips to take out the trash – they give me an excuse to stop somewhere for a cheeky afternoon snack!
Leave a comment if you have any questions (or any other moving-to-Taiwan topics you think I should cover) and I’ll do my best to help!