Rubbish and Recycling in Japan

In our family, we adhere to seven categories of waste disposal on a daily basis. This may sound impressive but actually, there are twenty-plus categories where we live.


In the kitchen, we have a nama gomi bucket for compost. All cooking and food scraps go here, including coffee grinds and the flotsam I strain out of my sink.

Next to the fridge, I have installed a three-drawer unit for PET plastic bottles, glass, and tin. When the glass drawer is full, we take it to a bottle bank and dispose of them further sorted according to colour.

Tucked in a corner of our kitchen, are two large and lidded bins. One is for ‘combustibles’, and the other is for what I refer to as miscellaneous clean plastic. I have come to define clean in this context as: if you left it outside, no curious animals would spread the contents down your street.


I confess most of our Japanese neighbours further sort their miscellaneous clean plastic into sub-categories. These include lids from PET bottles, faux foil wrappers, cellophane wrap, Styrofoam, and other plastics I can neither name nor recognise. We are continually improving but don’t yet sort to this optional degree.

Combustible waste encompasses things many foreigners consider recycling, such as tissue boxes, paper bags, and office paper. Combustibles also include items like odd socks and small, confounding things that seem not to fit in any other category.


Cardboard boxes must be folded or cut into small pieces of about 80cm by 80cm, and tied with string. Supermarkets recycle their boxes by providing them to customers for carrying groceries, so we always have a healthy supply.

Without a doubt, it is the bulky waste items that present the greatest challenges for us. To dispose of a coffee machine, a snowboard, or a microwave, for example, you must first take it to City Hall. There it will be assessed and you pay the fee determined. You will be told the date and location for disposal and given a tag to place on the item.


Back on the normal household rubbish, sorting it is only part of the process. Each receptacle for waste requires a specific plastic bag that you buy in the shops. They are colour coded and suitably sturdy for their intended contents. Here is where some organisation comes in, because you cannot take your rubbish out simply because a bag is full.


Also at City Hall, we collect a quarterly waste collection calendar for our area. It doesn’t always marry with our waste generation so I have designed a ‘feature wall of rubbish’ as a holding bay. It’s really just a shelf, but with the blue, orange, yellow, purple and green bags beaming brightly, it pleases me to look upon it. I learned the hard way to put a tray under the nama gomi.

When the appointed day arrives, we take our waste to a sturdy, raised cage in our neighbourhood. In central Hokkaido, these are designed to thwart hungry foxes, red pandas, and bears. We must take our bags in the morning, not the night before, and in busy tourism seasons it pays to dump early.

For accountability purposes, everyone writes their name and address on their bags. We often forget this but I have found that when I see a rejected bag in the cage, it’s almost always ours. I check regardless, because if nobody owns up to it, or if the dumper is a tourist who has moved on, it is up to us locals to empty and re-sort it.


The bags are transparent, or in some cases opaque, and they are only rejected for containing an inappropriate item, such as a drink bottle in a combustible bag, or a beer can in a miscellaneous clean plastic bag. Bags within bags are not allowed either, because the collector assesses the contents. This has caught us out a few times when we toss a small bag of car rubbish into our combustibles bin.

There is one delicate category I should mention, but as I call it ‘unmentionables’ this is difficult. It’s a discretely opaque yellow bag for disposing of women’s sanitary pads, baby nappies, and pet toileting products (mostly wee sheets). This bag is incinerated at high heat as opposed to burned with other combustible items. Rather sensitively, it has a special spot in the disposal cage, shielded from plain view.

For me, the best consequence of this involved and elaborate system is that I now think more about waste. My shopping habits are judicious because everything I buy presents a future disposal dilemma. I also look after my possessions as I never have before. Disposing of a broken umbrella, for example, is a high-stress proposition for me, so I will make our three brollies last. There is very little I do not re-purpose at least once before I dispose of it.

As a committed environmentalist, I applaud Japan’s approach to waste management and recycling. Resources are finite, as are the dumping grounds for waste. And just because we decide something is rubbish, does not mean it has finished its journey.

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