Here in the western hemisphere, when kids hear a familiar tune ringing through their neighborhood at the same time every day, they eagerly run outside to greet the ice cream truck. On the other side of the world, in the city streets of Taiwan, music can similarly be heard coming from a truck, but for a very different reason: it’s a garbage truck. Instead of getting ice cream, people are getting rid of their trash.
While it may not sound quite as nice as ice cream, the program is a wonder in its own right. In effect since 1997, the musical garbage trucks were developed as a response to the overwhelming trash problem in densely populated Taipei. Garbage was spilling out of dumpsters and piling up in the streets, feeding an exploding rat population and festering in the subtropical heat. In order to attract tourists and new industries, the government had to clean up its act. Thus, the “Trash off the Ground Movement” was born, and it continues to this day, more than twenty years later.
The most noticeable feature of this program, aside from the music, is that trash gets handed directly from the consumer into the back of the truck – there are no curbside collection bins. Trash never gets the chance to pile up.
But why not use just regular, silent (when not clunking) garbage trucks?
The use of music paired with the trucks is a social conditioning tool to make taking out the trash a normal routine of everyday life. Now, when people hear the music, they know without thinking what it means and how to respond to it. The music clips used, “Für Elise” and “The Maiden’s Prayer”, are classical pieces chosen for their universal beauty, with intent to infuse some pleasantry into what is usually everyone’s least-favorite chore, to hopefully inspire them to do it more.
So, two or three times a day, five days a week, big yellow musical trucks circulate throughout the city, with various stopping points where people hand over their bags of trash – and their bags are noticeably small. That’s another deliberate, socially-engineered outcome; planners wanted people to become more conscientious about what they use and consume and what they throw away.
And to help reduce the sheer amount of stuff people throw away, the program has financial incentives: the government-sanctioned trash bags, which are the only trash bags allowed to be used, must be purchased by consumers, but recycling and composting are free. White trucks follow behind the garbage trucks and stop to help people sort and return their recyclable and compostable items. Additionally, Taipei has installed smart recycling booths, which give cash back on their mass transit card in exchange for recyclable cans and bottles, with the flexibility to return items on their own schedule.
As a result, the island has transformed its reputation from “Garbage Island” to a tourist destination with a shining example of effective waste management. Taiwan’s recycling and composting rates are some of the highest in the world, reportedly as high as 55% (though that number is disputed), and the average amount of trashed produced by each citizen has decreased from 2.6 pounds to 1.7 in the past fifteen years.
Naturally, it draws comparisons with how waste is managed throughout the rest of the world, which seems to come up lacking, even in wealthier nations. Take the US for instance, where the average recycling rate is 34%, though that can vary widely from city to city.
But when the program is presented to Westerners, many recoil at the thought of having to hear the garbage truck’s music times a day, from up to eight blocks away, and they sympathize especially with the truck drivers. Yet Taiwanese don’t seem to be bothered by it. For them, it’s just a social cue that they respond to. The fact that the trucks circulate two or three times a day means that if you miss the morning pickup, you can catch the afternoon one instead.
Or you can just watch the action in the clip below:
Unexpectedly, the island’s wildlife has also responded to the musical trucks. Looking at a map of Taiwan, you may notice the vast majority of its land is taken up by national parks. One scientist’s ears perked up one night when he was staying in the mountains near Zhiben, outside of the city, and he suddenly heard the familiar tones of “The Maiden’s Prayer”, one the classical song clips used by the garbage trucks. But upon listening closer, he was astounded to realize the sound was not being made by garbage trucks, but by wildlife in the valley. He was inspired to make it the next subject of his next research project, and though he didn’t arrive at a definite conclusion, he speculates it may be mimicry by the Brown-Flanked Bush Warbler.
The implications of both cases are fascinating, and suggest we have more to learn about how people and animals work – and how their behavior can be conditioned to certain outcomes by using music.