Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why I Like The Singing Garbage Trucks

Taiwan's nation-wide method of garbage collection is the singing garbage truck, which drives through your neighborhood once or twice a day and which most people must meet and personally deliver their garbage to. Some apartment buildings and communities have a garbage service that obviates the need to meet the truck, but most of us are not that lucky (I live in a community, and have a doorwoman, but there's no trash service).

This method, differing as it does from the "leave your stinky trash on the side of the road until the truck can come by" method popular in much of the USA, is often attacked or ridiculed by locals and expats alike, most recently in a Ketagalan Media article. I generally like KM, and I agree with the second half of this article (which is actually about throwing toilet paper into a can rather than flushing it). But I just can't agree with the author on this:

Taipei is the most developed city in Taiwan, yet despite its free Ubikes and newly revived artsy cultural parks, it is still plagued with junky private buildings covered with rusty metal sheets, messy electrical wiring and piping, stinky side streets, an eyesore of public buildings, and a primitive trash removal system (you would think that they would have come up with something better than having to chase after the classical music butchering garbage truck every evening at the same hour by now).

I agree about the junky buildings, although the KMT-and-gangster-spearheaded urban renewal projects are not the way to deal with that. I agree about the messy wiring and to some extent piping and the often ugly public buildings.

But I do not and cannot agree on the trash. 

The USA's system works fine in small towns and suburbs, where the trash in the bins is mostly spread out, because the houses are spread out. I have been told it emphatically does not work in large cities, though, where the only choices seem to be "smelly dumpsters out back that make the whole area reek, reached through trash chutes that lead to stinky rooms that have roach problems", and leaving your trash on the curb, where the buildings are packed so closely together that it turns the street, for that night, into a leaky, stinky, rat-infested obstacle course.

I know a lot of people like to pretend that America is a Shining City on a Hill, where everything is modern and we do everything right (hahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahhaahhahahaaaahaha
hhahaaaaaa HAAAAAAA ha ah hhahaha haha...ahem. Sorry.) But, as well as the typical trash removal systems in the US work, or don't work, they would never work in a densely populated subtropical city like Taipei.

Considering how many people are packed into almost every square inch of much of the city - and even then, it has more breathing room and open spaces than many of its immediate suburbs - could you imagine what garbage night would look like? The sidewalks themselves would faint. And to have a dumpster out back? In the subtropical heat and humidity, it would putrefy and reek far more heinously than anything you could imagine in, say, New York (where it still putrefies and reeks). Can you imagine the shiny brown hordes of cockroaches that would attract, not to mention the rats? Taipei already has a cockroach problem!

Could every building start its own trash removal program? Not really - imagine the chaos that would befall apartments without doormen/women. Residents would have to do it themselves, which opens up all sorts of new doors for resentments and neighbor feuds. And it would be decentralized, making it stunningly less efficient than the well-planned, well-oiled (sometimes literally, heh) system we have now. It has its inconveniences - if your building lacks trash service and you just can't be home at the time the truck comes due to work commitments, you're basically screwed - but overall I think it's yet another feat of urban planning that Taipei has gotten right whereas other cities, including in more "developed" countries, have gotten dead wrong.

I know the Libertarian or "anti-government" types will hate this, but the carefully-planned, centralized system really does work better. I'm sorry to destroy your dreams of a capitalist utopia, but it is possible - even likely - that greater efficiency comes with centralization. Maybe not for everything: certainly planning centralized agriculture was a massive failure (although with better planning it perhaps didn't have to be, the fact remains that it was). But for trash collection? This works.

Plus, it allows sanitation officials to:

- Immediately spot and notify people not using city-issued trash bags, which are issued for a reason;
- Have a mass-food waste collection program in which people can dump food waste into bins rather than throw it out, and that can in turn be used for something other than piling up in a landfill (does anyone know what it is in fact used for?)
- Keep an eye on who is obeying recycling laws and who isn't

And you get the added benefit - at least I think it is - of getting a chance to meet your neighbors. You've all got to do it, so you may as well chat while you wait.

It's the smartest, fastest, most efficient system you could ask for in a dense area like Greater Taipei. I can't speak for the countryside, but it works here.

So, although I once had six bags of glass bottles because the independent recyclers (most of whom need the income that collecting recycling provides) wouldn't take them and I was not able to meet the truck on "glass recycling days" for a few months, I still think that it's straight-up wrong to call it a "primitive" system or imply that the stinky mess that is an American city on garbage night or apartment building trash chute and dumpster is somehow superior. It isn't.

I, for one, look forward to the tuneless crooning of Fur Elise twice a night, every night.


dfoxworthy said...

The author is right, Taiwan does have the best method, but not from a centralized government organization.

The way condo buildings remove trash in Taiwan is way better. They use an air tight container that has a roll away dumpster in it. When you open the door to throw trash in, it sprays a bio friendly chemical to prevent any bad smells or flies residents may have added to it from escaping, and it is serviced and cleaned by a private organization that is motivated to make sure it smells good and is in good working order, or we fire them.

No smell or mess, no having to leave dinner at the hope you can make it back before trash time( I can't tell you how many times I have had my Taiwanese family members do this). No stinky trash trucks driving around the city. No blocked traffic during trash time. No people jumping out in front of your motorbike to get to the trash truck. Whats the cost per residence per month? 111 Ntd... Less than you pay for public trash bags in a month.

Also, the government allows traditional markets still pile trash on the corner waiting for trash time. Taipei has plenty of rats, roaches, and trash on the ground caused by public trash systems. Because residents are required to buy special trash fee bags, the amount of litter in parks and on the street has risen in recent years.

Sorry, some times the free market is better, especially in this case.

Jenna Cody said...

I don't know what condo you live in, but the one time I did live in a building with centralized collection, we were told to leave it in a certain place until the collector could come, and as a result our building had a worse roach problem than any other building I've lived in, including older buildings with worse construction!

And not every condo has "airtight smell-free dumpsters" - I've definitely noticed that some are smellier than others. Perhaps yours does a better job of it, but I've seen this being done much worse. I'm also not convinced that "chemical" is bio-friendly. Someone is probably lying to you about that.

Trash in parks etc. used to be a problem, but I don't know what statistics you're quoting as, with increased enforcement, trash has actually gone down in parks, because now you stand a real chance of getting in trouble for doing that.

Either way, no matter what, the decentralized way of having every building figure out how to do it for themselves can't be as efficient, because they all have to figure out how to get trash picked up, when to do it, who to hire (and how would they even organize that if they don't have a doorperson) and how to get it to the dump/recycling center and make sure people are actually recycling? It creates a diffuse, and therefore less efficient, system. Some industries such as agriculture benefit from decenralization. Others benefit from semi-decentralization. But trash collection is not one of them.

You think roaches and rats are bad in Taipei now? Imagine what they would be like if people left their trash out to be collected as you suggest is better!

Jenna Cody said...

Plus if every building did that it would clog up streets more, as they have to get to the dump somehow. Imagine - one truck for a hundred buildings or whatever, or a hundred separate trucks. Which is worse for traffic?