The Third "R": Japan's Trash System

Photo: MIKI Yoshihito

The Third "R": Japan's Trash System

Steven Askew

A cool drink of ryokucha on a hot summer’s day is wonderfully refreshing, but what to do with the empty bottle? Where I come from, England, you just throw it in the trash, on top of the teabags and leftovers from lunch. Then it gets buried in a landfill somewhere. Out of sight, out of mind.

In Japan it is not so simple. First, the label comes off. That is plastic and goes in the plastic trash. Then the cap. That can go in the plastic trash or it can be recycled separately. A number of nonprofit organizations in Japan collect the bottle caps for recycling and use the money raised to buy vaccines for children in developing countries, so the cap goes in the cap collection box. Then the bottle. That’s plastic, right? Yes, but it’s polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is a different kind of plastic. That gets recycled separately and goes in the bottle trash can. Sound complicated? It is. But it is worth the extra time it takes for the sake of the environment. Japan currently recycles up to 77% of its plastic bottles, almost four times as high as the USA, and it does so primarily with the help of its people. If people weren’t willing to separate their trash, then the program would have never got off the ground.

So, how does it work? There are trash points on each street and people are responsible for carrying their own trash there.

The trash points are caged or covered with netting to keep off the crows. Some, as in my building, are in a locked room. The manager of the building opens up the room just before the garbage truck arrives.

Trash collection varies from area to area and is divided day by day. This below is the schedule.

It is generally broken down into these different types, each one picked up by a different kind of garbage truck.
・Burnable trash – food waste etc.
・Plastic – food wrappers etc. (must be washed and clean)
・Cans, PET bottles and glass bottles (collected together and then separated at the recycling center)
・Non-burnable trash – metal etc. (batteries and aerosol cans have to be separated out)
・Paper (cardboard, magazines and newspapers are all collected separately)
・Garden waste.

Each type of trash has a different collection day and if you put the wrong kind out on the wrong day the trash collectors will stick a large red cross on the bag and leave it. If the bag is still there a day or two later they will open it up and try to identify the owner.

Recycled trash collection is free but trash that has to be disposed of, (burnable, non-burnable and garden waste), is not free. You have to buy specific, colored trash bags that come in select sizes from 5L (100 yen), 10L (200 yen), 20L (400 yen) and 40L (400~500 yen). The price is a tax on trash and the idea is to encourage people to recycle more and use less. The three Rs enforced financially.

For large items you can pay to have them disposed of. You have to phone up the recycling center and describe the item, along with measurements. They will tell you the price and then you buy pre-paid stickers from any convenience store. The items have to be left outside for a prearranged pickup.

To manage with all of these systems, homes and places of work have to have a number of different trash cans. For example here, in my house.

And here, in my office.

At first the complicated system might seem like an annoyance, but once you think about how much we consume and how much we are hurting our planet, you will come to see that a little bit of effort for recycling is not a bad thing. And when you look at the trash system you can come to understand a lot about the Japanese. You can see their attention to detail, their willingness to work a little bit harder, their team spirit and their care for the environment. The Japanese are setting the way here and I hope many other countries will start to follow.

Postscript: I worked as a garbage collector in my own country and I would like to praise the work of the Japanese garbage collectors. In England garbage bags tear and refuse can be left strewn across a street. The Japanese garbage trucks have dustpans and brooms attached to them and the garbage men never leave any piece of rubbish. Ever. Even in the snow! An incredible feat!