Ella Dorn

The strange rituals of Taiwan’s bin men

The jingles, queues and holographic bags were not simply for sanitation

  • From Spectator Life
Red steel trash in Taiwan.

The bin system in Taiwan is strange. There is no single bin day. A citizen retains responsibility for their rubbish until the moment the bin lorry arrives on their road, at which point they must take it upon themselves to put it into the appropriate receptacle or shredder. In my bit of Taipei, where my university sent me for a year to study Mandarin, the lorries came almost every evening. Each neighbourhood had two slots – mine were at 18.30 and 21.20. Before the lorries left, they would play loud warning jingles. Sometimes this was Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’, and sometimes it was ‘A Maiden’s Prayer’, a Polish piano piece also heard on Taipei city buses.  

I paid about £300 a month to live at the eastern edge of Taipei in a flat made of corrugated metal

Recyclable waste could be thrown away in any sort of bag. For non-recyclable waste, you had to go to one of the Japanese-style convenience stores that sit on every corner and ask conspiratorially at the counter for lese dai, as if you were buying vodka or explosives. The special blue bags, which come with a holographic stamp of authenticity, sell for around 18p each. This surcharge funds waste collection, which is not factored into the government budget.  

Like many of my friends, I lived in a ramshackle apartment with a dangerous kitchen. I paid about £300 a month to live at the eastern edge of Taipei in a flat made of corrugated metal. My home sat precariously on top of a building that was already five stories high. Its construction, it turned out, had been illegal. The small kitchen lacked ventilation and fireproofing, which meant I never cooked or even lit the stove. (My reluctance was vindicated when, towards the end of my year in the city, I saw a plume of smoke across the road and checked the local news to discover a house fire in an identical sixth-floor extension, with one fatality.)

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