Monday, November 15, 2010

Trash in Japan

After reading John's comment on trash in Japan, I thought of looking at the trash problem as a function of place, geography, culture and time. I have written a few posts that fall under this mindset, including about Tuvalu, Western waste in Africa, Michigan (here and here), Chicago, New York City and India (here, here and here). But what I might try to do now is compare and contrast how trash is dealt with specifically in different parts of the world. Japan seems like an apt place to start - an Eastern consumerist society with an old cultural and philosophical heritage.

John (which John?! I don't know who this is, but I really want to know!) said, "Japan has some of the most stringent policies on product end-of-life that I know of, due to their high population, small land area, and lack of places to put trash. So it seems, on some level, they are starting to face their reality. And yet! if you buy a few items in a store, they will often wrap each one in tissue paper before putting them all into a bag."

Japan incinerates 80% of its garbage (with 1,400 incinerators), whereas America sends 80% of its garbage to landfills. Japan is the size of California, and has vending machines for almost everything, including underwear! Check out this photo!

You can probably guess that there is consequently a lot of material that is used and trashed in Japan (for some statistics, you can go here). What John said is at some level correct - local governments in Japan have their citizens hyper-sort their garbage, just like how TerraCycle wants its citizen suppliers to do. Here's what a New York Times article from May, 2005, says (with italics and bold emphases added by me...definitely check out the audio slide show on the left of the page),

"YOKOHAMA, Japan - When this city recently doubled the number of garbage categories to 10, it handed residents a 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518 items.

Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, "after the contents have been used up," into "small metals" or plastics. Take out your tape measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse.

Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks "are not torn, and the left and right sock match." Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been "washed and dried."
Indeed, Yokohama, with 3.5 million people, appears slack compared with Kamikatsu, a town of 2,200 in the mountains of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. Not content with the 34 trash categories it defined four years ago as part of a major push to reduce waste, Kamikatsu has gradually raised the number to 44.
The environmentally friendlier process of sorting and recycling may be more expensive than dumping, experts say, but it is comparable in cost to incineration.
For Yokohama, the goal is to reduce incinerated garbage by 30 percent over the next five years. But Kamikatsu's goal is even more ambitious: eliminating garbage by 2020.

In the last four years, Kamikatsu has halved the amount of incinerator-bound garbage and raised its recycled waste to 80 percent, town officials said. Each household now has a subsidized garbage disposal unit that recycles raw garbage into compost.
At the single Garbage Station where residents must take their trash, 44 bins collect everything from tofu containers to egg cartons, plastic bottle caps to disposable chopsticks, fluorescent tubes to futons.
On a recent morning, Masaharu Tokimoto, 76, drove his pick-up truck to the station and expertly put brown bottles in their proper bin, clear bottles in theirs. He looked at the labels on cans to determine whether they were aluminum or steel. Flummoxed about one item, he stood paralyzed for a minute before mumbling to himself, "This must be inside." Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Tokimoto was done. 
...enter the garbage guardians, the army of hawk-eyed volunteers across Japan who comb offending bags for, say, a telltale gas bill, then nudge the owner onto the right path.
One of the most tenacious around here is Mitsuharu Taniyama, 60, the owner of a small insurance business who drives around his ward every morning and evening, looking for missorted trash. He leaves notices at collection sites: "Mr. So-and-so, your practice of sorting out garbage is wrong. Please correct it."
He stopped in front of one messy location where five bags were scattered about, and crows had picked out orange peels from one. 

"This is a typical example of bad garbage," Mr. Taniyama said, with disgust. "The problem at this location is that there is no community leader. If there is no strong leader, there is chaos."
Ms. Miyano said she now had 90 percent compliance, adding that, to her surprise, those resisting tended to be "intellectuals," like a certain university professor or an official at Japan Airlines up the block.
One young couple consistently failed to properly sort their trash. "Sorry! We'll be careful!" they would say each time Mr. Kawai knocked on their door holding evidence of their transgressions.

At last, even Mr. Kawai - a small 77-year-old man with wispy white hair, an easy smile and a demeanor that can only be described as grandfatherly - could take no more.

"They were renting the apartment, so I asked the owner, 'Well, would it be possible to have them move?' " Mr. Kawai said, recalling, with undisguised satisfaction, that the couple was evicted two months ago"

Here is a first-hand account of a Navy wife's experiences in Japan; I found it on her blog! A fun read. Gomi is Japanese for are some excerpts...

"We were issued a large gomi packet upon signing our lease, containing 120 bright yellow peel-and-stick trash labels, and an instruction booklet (a large instruction booklet!) in English and Japanese detailing what to do. Each family is issued these stickers for free at the beginning of the year--60 stickers per family member.

You may not leave the bags out the night before. You must leave them between 5:00 and 8:00am. If you leave them out too early, dogs or cats will tear them apart and strew the trash...and our neighbors will KNOW it's our trash all over the street, especially if it has stuff with English labels!
They won't take trash without the right labels, or in the wrong bags, or in the wrong place. If you run out of labels before the end of the year, you have to PURCHASE more--and the purchased ones are very vivid green or purple, so everyone in the neighborhood knows YOU were a wasteful person and a bad citizen. 
Recyclable trash is picked up twice a month, and can go in any transparent stickers required. However, it has to be separated into one of 12 (yes, that's twelve, as in a ten and a two) different categories. I won't go into the extreme details, but I'll give a few examples. Drink cartons must be cut open, rinsed, laid flat, and tied into a bundle. Yard waste must be cut into lengths of no more than 80cm, and of a diameter of 10cm or less, and must be tied into 80 x 30cm bundles of no more than 10kg each. You are requested to brush all dirt from fallen leaves before bagging them in transparent bags (I am not making this up!!) You may put out no more than two bundles of sticks or two bags of leaves at a time. Dry cell batteries go in a special pail at the gomi collection point. Even cloth is recycled! And soiled or "dirtied" paper, like pizza boxes, are supposed to go with combustible trash, not recyclables (there's a whole list of specific kinds of paper that should not be recycled.)
(I love this part) It's all pretty bewildering, and we've had several people (including several of my American teachers during the Intercultural Relations class) tell us "Oh, don't worry about all that stuff. Just bring your garbage to the dumpsters on base. We do!" But if our neighbors can all sort their trash properly, so can we. We'll be better stewards of the earth...and our Japanese neighbors will be less likely to see Americans as selfish pigs! Besides, I bet we'll meet some people when making our treks to the gomi station!
I also never realized how much trash one or two people can generate. It's really a revelation, and embarrassing, too! New produce less waste.

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