Getting Trashy in Taiwan


Momentarily I was unsure what to write about, then I found inspiration in the trash. Taking out the trash in Taiwan is complicated

The first complication is the obvious: there is communal living in the apartment buildings, but not a communal dumpster at most buildings. Instead, a garbage truck plays an ice-cream truck song to alert neighborhoods to its presence several times a week. It falls on the citizens to chase after the truck with their bags of trash.

Correction, bags of trash and recycling. The auntie in my building tried to explain all the intricacies of this recycling business when I moved in, but either I wasn’t listening or some of it was lost in translation.

1. Regular trash/unrecyclables: bathroom stuff, plastic bags, maybe food scraps. I have a hunch they might even have a special place for the food scraps. People come out their doors with what looks like slop buckets.

2. Glass bottles, cans, plastic – not really sure if they are supposed to be separated.

3. Paper: I don’t have  a lot of paper but I do know the trash truck wouldn’t accept my pizza box despite my confusion.

At first I thought it was great recycling was so prominent in Taiwan. Until my life became that much more … trashed. On the point of trash and recycling the old biddies in my building are unyielding and unhelpful. One guanlix (a “security guard” but really just someone who sits and watches soap operas in the lobby and judges me coming and going at strange hours) tried to tell me what hours the trash and recycling trucks came. Yes, that’s right they come at different times and frequencies each day and no recycling trucks on the weekends when they would be most useful. Most of the times she rattled off seemed to be during business hours that I was already in class learning Chinese or teaching English. 

A few weeks after moving in when I caught my first trash truck after rushing home from work I was handed a pink time schedule, all in Mandarin so good thing I can’t read any of the helpful information. I have it though, as a sort of consolation prize perhaps I will take it out one day and reminisce about the days I couldn’t read Mandarin and with tears in my eyes translate the times my trash truck would come.

I was getting along comfortably with my recycling and trash routine until my housewarming party when my recycling over runneth. A few friends were kind enough to help me bag up all the recyclables before disappearing into the night, but that still left me with three large bags of recycling and my trash. Then I got busy, and the beer cans and wine bottles started to draw fruit flies onto my balcony. One night the week following I returned home from work in time to tow the trash and two out of three recyclables to the trucks on the corner.

This still left my remaining bag of putrefying recyclables for this week. The other night I brought down my current bag of trash, the recyclables bag and a third bag with a pizza box, two plastic teacups and an old shampoo bottle. As I dashed for the truck I recalled overhearing a conversation with friends at a rooftop party a month before on the art of disguising recyclables to look like trash.

As I stepped up to the trash truck, sweating, I heaved my trash into the back of the truck and realizing there was no recyclables truck that night I guiltily threw that in as well. Meanwhile the shrewd old lady trash worker stared me down and when I attempted to discard the pizza box and plastics she shrieked at me. No doubt, I was trying to get rid of recyclables in the trash truck, but I am just a stupid foreigner so I was looking for a little pity.

She pawed through the bag of plastics and pizza box and said a lot of loud sounds that I didn’t understand while I looked confused, sweaty and a little guilty. Then she dismissed me with a pointed index finger that clearly meant, “You can leave young lady and don’t come back until you learn how to dispose of a pizza box properly.” Then I trudged back into my building towing the offending pizza box and plastic bottles with a little vindictive pleasure that I had gotten rid of the last bag of recycling from the party without her noticing. So there, I’m a trash reprobate and probably a repeat offender.

I love recycling. I love doing things right the first time. And I love following the rules, within reason. But this system is designed with the understanding someone will always be at home during the day to catch the trash truck. Now, I live alone in a foreign country and I just want to take out my own waste on my own terms. I don’t want to inconvenience anyone by asking them to take my trash and recyclables for me, but you can’t blame my friends and I for disguising some of our trash on the nights we rush down to find only a trash truck option. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, especially if those everyones are grim old Taiwanese ladies.