Notes from a pilot's kid

Trash in Japan and Taiwan

Trash in America (the suburban America where I grew up, at least) is something that you put out at the end of your driveway for a trash company employee you don’t know to put in the back of a truck and drive off. You pay a flat monthly fee for this service. Plastic bags – white for indoors and larger black ones for outdoors, though the color didn’t really matter – accumulate trash over the course of the week, and on “trash day” a family member collects them, places them in an official bin, and wheels the bin out to the curb. If there is too much trash for the bin, you can usually get away with piling up extra bags right next to the bin and someone will take care of it. ”Taking out the trash” in this way did not feel American to me until seeing other ways it can be done elsewhere, so here are some examples.

In Taiwan, leaving trash on the curb, American-style, would be a disaster because most residential streets do not have sidewalks and there is already fierce competition for scooter and bicycle parking along the sides of each alley and lane. Instead, trash collection is a communal process, and nothing is ever left outside for long. A yellow truck comes at a scheduled evening time, announcing itself street-by-street with the melody used in America for ice cream truck, and each resident must personally carry their trash to hand it to the garbage men and women. A recycling truck usually follows the trash truck, and a flurry of sorting happens in a communal fashion to separate recyclables into plastic, glass, paper, and other materials.

Here’s a video from YouTube of a trash truck in Taiwan:

The communal trash collection process must place some pressure on residents to be considerate of the waste they create. First, I think residents pay per bag, so wasting more costs more. Second, neighbors can’t avoid seeing both the amount and sometimes the contents of each others’ waste. In certain situations, this has to add pressure to not be an excessive waster. Third, everyone knows their trash collection workers, and if they waste more or don’t sort their recycling well, they impose extra work on people they will see every week.

These pressures seem to have actually formed more waste-conscious habits in everyday life in Taiwan. On multiple occasions when I first moved to Taipei and didn’t know any better, I would begin to throw away something as ordinary as a paper milk tea cup, and a friend would stop me, step in and offer to take care of throwing it away for me. Rather than pitching the whole thing, they would rip off the plastic lid, put any leftover tapioca in a bag for compost, rinse the cup and put the cup in a different bag for paper recycling, then rinse the straw and put it in a third bag for plastic recycling. This seemed meticulous at first, but it’s hard to argue with people of a society possessing a second-nature inclination like this to reduce waste and recycle more.

There are certainly drawbacks to Taiwan’s system. The biggest drawback is that residents are practically required to be home during their trash collection time or they will have to hold onto their trash until the next collection day. I do not know if there is a backup option for people who are often unavailable at collection time. The second is one of accessibility…I am not sure if there are special accommodations for handicapped residents, but if there aren’t, then the system requiring the handicapped to carry their garbage all the way to the end of the street each week seems unfortunate. Compared to America, Taiwan’s system is less flexible and convenient, but it leads to better habits with how people recycle and throw away their trash.

I am also curious about Japan’s system for trash collection, and although I have less firsthand experience with it, I have one example to share. It seems that like America, Japan leaves its trash on the roadside, but a different system for collection and payment might be used. In Tokyo’s Shinagawa district, I saw a neat line of white garbage bags at an intersection of two alleys. Here’s what they looked like:

Shinagawa Trash Collection 1

Shinagawa Trash Collection 2

Each bag had a large sticker describing its size (and perhaps its contents) and used a color-coded system that perhaps indicated to garbage collectors where it should go or how heavy it is. My guess is that these stickers are sold like postage stamps, allowing people to pay per bag for waste collection but without having to personally hand each bag to the collectors. In that regard, Japan’s system may not have the same social pressures as Taiwan’s, but Japanese still have a financial incentive to minimize how much they throw away.

Reflecting back on America’s system, we may be the culture that invented many ’all-you-can-eat’ services like this. Even if we’re not, we definitely embrace and expect it, and it’s often a pattern throughout consumption. In line with the pay-per-trash-bag system in Taiwan, grocery and convenience stores have a pay-per-shopping-bag rule too, and even though the cost of a bag is only 3% of the price of a candy bar, it puts people in the mindset of realizing that wasting more costs society more just like the trash collection services do, and people behave differently with that in mind. There’d probably be riots in the streets if either of these systems were proposed in America, but I think there’s something to learn from the principle of designing a cost structure to encourage certain behavior.