A community ritual, a brief time for bonding
Beethoven’s “Für Elise” is probably one of the best-known pieces of classical music in the world. Its beautiful flow has been practiced by millions of piano learners, and even used by some as their mobile phone ring tone.
Likewise, “A Maiden's Prayer,” a melody by Polish composer Tekla B?darzewska-Baranowska, is familiar and well-loved by many people. It is a tune transmitted from generation to generation.
To Taiwanese, these two classic tones share another very interesting common point---both have been used as signals by garbage trucks to remind people to take out the trash. In the United States and in most European countries, people would just put their trash and household waste into garbage cans and recycling receptacles for sanitary engineers to collect them. But in Taiwan, people have to carry and dump them right into the garbage truck.
Several decades ago, waste collection in Taiwan was like those in other countries where people just put their waste into public garbage cans for trash collectors to pick up. However, since this island nation located in the subtropics is relatively small and heavily populated, the public garbage collection spots were usually extremely smelly and attracted mice, flies, and insects---a horrible sight that largely affected the hygiene and image of a modern society.
The central government, therefore, decided to change the waste collection system and asked everyone to bring their household garbage and personally dump them into garbage trucks. To make sure that everyone knew that the garbage truck was coming, the Environmental Protection Administration added the melodic come-on to the arrival of the yellow trucks.
Taking Taipei city as an example, every night except Wednesdays and Sundays, city residents would gather at the mouth of a street alley, one hand carrying blue plastic bags, the other carrying recyclable waste, waiting for the rear-loading garbage trucks to appear around the corner.
Whenever they hear the melody “Für Elise” or “A Maiden's Prayer,” city dwellers emerge from their apartment buildings, head to the gathering point and wait for the slow-moving truck.
Who chose it?
Rumor on the Internet has it that the decision of using the “Für Elise” was made by the late Hsu Tse-chiu (1920-1988), former director of the Department of Health. Sometime in the early eighties, he was looking for music for the trash trucks. One day, his daughter, a piano learner, was practicing Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” and he decided that it was one of the most recognizable classical pieces around the world and chose it as the “garbage music.”
The EPA that is now responsible for the waste collection could not confirm the rumor, saying that more than 20 years had passed to trace the origin of such a seminal decision.
But no one has complained that some notes of this beautiful music ring repeatedly when the time comes to take out the trash.
But in other parts of this island, people do not just hear Fur Elise or A Maiden’s Prayer. At Christmas time, the trucks play Christmas songs, and during Chinese New Year, some traditional Chinese music.
Six years ago in Taiwan’s southern city Tainan, residents heard a very foreign-sounding voice speaking sentences of basic English conversation. Instead of Beethoven’s Für Elise or A Maiden's Prayer, the speakers on the garbage trucks played "How are you?" and "I'm fine, Thank you."
The innovative idea came up during a private conversation between Tainan City Mayor, Hsu Tain-tsair and his wife. "We got together with teachers and members of the city government's education bureau and came up with a series of conversational dialogues that we felt were simple yet important," said Hsu in an interview with a local newspaper in September 2002, not long after the project was launched in the city.
But the project was short-lived. Earlier this year, the city government suspended its “English conversation lessons through garbage trucks” and started broadcasting city policies in both Vietnamese and Thai, for the benefit of foreign spouses who do not understand Chinese. Both the English teaching program and government policy promotion show that garbage collection time in Taiwan is useful in other ways.
A lesson from Taiwan
It is a rare opportunity for a brief time of bonding among neighbors. It is the only time you would meet some rarely seen neighbors and even have a little chat with them. In this cold, largely indifferent modern society, this 5-days-a-week ritual helps to bring people closer to each other though only for five to ten minutes.
Very often, you would see Indonesian and Filipino household helpers and nannies gathering around in a small circle, using their mother tongues to chat while waiting for the garbage truck. For them, this nightly small gathering is a widely anticipated event.
Julia Ross, a freelance writer and former U.S. Fulbright scholar in Taiwan, observes that waiting for the garbage truck in Taiwan is “one of Taiwan’s liveliest communal rites.”
In an article entitled “What I Picked Up about Trash in Taipei” which was published by Washington Post on December 2, 2007, Ross, who has spent a year in the island to study Chinese before returning to the U.S., was deeply impressed by Taiwan’s garbage collection system.
“Many evenings I watched food vendors from the night markets, buckets of eggshells in hand, chat up convenience store clerks alongside Filipina nannies, who traded kitchen appliances as if they were at a Sunday morning swap meet. Freelance recyclers keen to make a few dollars showed up to collect cardboard and newspapers, which they would sell back to the city. An alderman with a whistle kept traffic at bay,” she wrote in the article.
More than just a lively community ritual, garbage collection in Taiwan also earned credit from Ross who lauded Taipei’s waste-disposal network, which is “made up of municipal employees and regular citizens all doing their part to keep the system humming.”
“Watching the city’s disparate trash tribes at work shamed me into compliance after years as a half-hearted recycler back home,” she said.
“Even more impressive, they fueled a sense of civic responsibility in a place where democracy is still taking root. Just as the Taiwanese invest in their young representative government, they invest in a clean environment.”
At the end, she gives highest credit to the garbage lessons she learned in Taipei by saying that “living in a place where I was expected to use what I bought and recycle every last yogurt cup and juice box left me with a new appreciation for what clean streets mean in a civil society, and the realization that I’m responsible for everything I consume. That’s as good a Chinese lesson as any.”
The article was later translated into Chinese and made into pamphlets by the Taipei City government to give away to its citizens that Taipei and Taiwan as a whole has something to feel proud of. Indeed, Taiwanese should be proud that garbage collection time has become a unique cultural experience that can serve as a great lesson for people around the world.