How Do Japanese Dump Trash?

Let Us Count the Myriad Ways

by Norimitsu Onishi

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."

"It was so hard at first," said Sumie Uchiki, 65, whose ward began
wrestling with the 10 categories last October as part of an early
trial. "We were just not used to it. I even needed to wear my
reading glasses to sort out things correctly."

To Americans struggling with sorting trash into a few categories,
Japan may provide a foretaste of daily life to come. In a national
drive to reduce waste and increase recycling, neighborhoods, office
buildings, towns and megalopolises are raising the number of trash
categories - sometimes to dizzying heights.

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.

In Japan, the long-term push to sort and recycle aims to reduce the
amount of garbage that ends up in incinerators. In land-scarce
Japan, up to 80 percent of garbage is incinerated, while a similar
percentage ends up in landfills in the United States.

The environmentally friendlier process of sorting and recycling may
be more expensive than dumping, experts say, but it comparable in
cost to incineration.

"Sorting trash is not necessarily more expensive than incineration,"
said Hideki Kidohshi, a garbage researcher at the Center for the
Strategy of Emergence at the Japan Research Institute. "In Japan,
sorting and recycling will make further progress."

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

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. The town had gotten
much cleaner with the new garbage policy, he said, though he
added: "It's a bother, but I can't throw away the trash in the
mountains. It would be a violation."

In towns and villages where everybody knows one another, not sorting
may be unthinkable. In cities, though, not everybody complies, and
perhaps more than any other act, sorting out the trash properly is
regarded as proof that one is a grown-up, responsible citizen. The
young, especially bachelors, are notorious for not sorting. And
landlords reluctant to rent to non-Japanese will often explain that
foreigners just cannot - or will not - sort their trash.

In Yokohama, after a few neighborhoods started sorting last year,
some residents stopped throwing away their trash at home. Garbage
bins at parks and convenience stores began filling up mysteriously
with unsorted trash.

"So we stopped putting garbage bins in the parks," said Masaki
Fujihira, who oversees the promotion of trash sorting at Yokohama
City's family garbage division.

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."

"I checked inside bags and took especially lousy ones back to the
owners' front doors," Mr. Taniyama said.

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."

He touched base with his lieutenants in the field. On the corner of
a street with large houses, where the new policy went into effect
last October, Yumiko Miyano, 56, was waiting with some neighbors.

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

"But the husband is the problem - the wife sorts her trash
properly," one neighbor said of the airlines family.

Getting used to the new system was not without its embarrassing

Shizuka Gu, 53, said that early on, a community leader sent her a
letter reprimanding her for not writing her identification number on
the bag with a "thick felt-tip pen." She was chided for using a pen
that was "too thin."

"It was a big shock to be told that I had done something wrong," Ms.
Gu said. "So I couldn't bring myself to take out the trash here and
asked my husband to take it to his office. We did that for one

At a 100-family apartment complex not too far away, Sumishi Kawai
was keeping his eyes trained on the trash site before pickup.
Missorting was easy to spot, given the required use of clear garbage
bags with identification numbers. Compliance was perfect - almost.

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

Author: Norimitsu Onishi.

Source: From NY Times, May 12th 2005. Sent to us by Dick Lawrence.
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