Early in the morning, blue garbage trucks can be seen all over Tokyo crisscrossing the streets in the city’s 23 wards. In all, some 50 companies collect the city’s garbage. About 100 of those trucks belong to the Shirai Group, a family-owned company that has been collecting corporate and residential waste in Tokyo since 1941.
Shirai has a contract with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to collect waste and it also has about 1,000 contracts with private companies to pick up their waste material. The group has six companies, including Shirai Eco-center Co Ltd, Shirai Transport Co Ltd and S-Recycle Co Ltd.
The company has been receiving foreign interns and recruiting foreign graduates since 2009, from the U.S., Poland, China, India, Hungary and Australia. Shirai has adapted its operations and corporate culture to enable foreign staff to get involved in everyday operations and do useful work, even if they don’t speak Japanese.
Chiaki Takiguchi heads Shirai Eco-center Co. Born in Tokyo, he opted not to go to university and instead, went backpacking for three years in the U.S. Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. After returning to Japan, he got involved in the waste management business and joined the Shirai Group in 2000.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Takiguchi at his office in Chiyoda Ward to hear more.
What does the Shirai Group do?
Shirai group, which has six companies, provides waste-transportation services. We collect residential and commercial waste in the 23 wards of Tokyo through a yearly contract with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. We also have about 1,000 contracts with private companies.
What do the various companies do?
Shirai Eco-center collects and transports waste and operates a waste storage and distribution center. Shirai Transport handles mainly residential waste. S-Recycle is involved in the sale, purchase and processing of plastics, as well as waste management consulting. S-Drive outsources part-time workers and drivers.
How many trucks do you have?
We have 50 trucks collecting residential waste and 50 collecting corporate waste.
How efficient is the operation?
It is very efficient but not particularly cost effective. This is because the government requires everyone to sort their garbage, which means we have to use many trucks. It is very specific; for example, there is a day for only paper collection because the government wants it done that way to educate consumers.
It might be good for consumers, but the cost is high when you have to be sorting garbage. We would like to see an end to that and collect garbage all together. You can certainly mix a lot more recyclable stuff together.
We have studied waste management in other cities around the world. The most common international standard is to have three categories – burnable waste, recyclable and others.
Is Tokyo running out of space for garbage?
Not yet. Currently, all waste is taken to 20 incinerators in the 23 wards. For waste that has to be buried, there is a big landfill area in Koto Ward. There is a lot more reclaimed land which can be used as landfills. After waste is buried there, it is turned into gardens. Hard plastics get buried, while 90% of electrical appliances like TVs, fridges, washing machines, air conditioners and so on are recycled by manufacturers. Cars are recycled, too.
Is the amount of garbage increasing in Tokyo?
Residential waste has decreased a little, while commercial waste – both office and construction -- is decreasing by 10%. This is probably because Tokyo’s population is flat.
Do you test the waste for radiation?
That is not necessary for all garbage in Tokyo. Some recyclable material is checked because it is exported overseas.
Do you have any international business?
Yes, our strategy is to expand internationally, particularly in developing countries. We are looking at India or Malaysia. Our strategy will be to invest in a company to make a partnership, then form a subsidiary.
To do that, we need to improve our global communication skills and get more information from abroad. That’s why we have had foreign interns and why we now have foreign employees. They do international marketing, attend international events and deal with clients who are English-speaking.
Have you ever been out in the trucks?
Most employees have had that experience. I’ve been in the trucks many times to observe the pick-up firsthand. Of course, it requires an effort to be up at 5 a.m.
What community activities is the Shirai Group involved in?
We collect used cell phones and use the raw metals to work with an NGO on a project to save wild mountain gorillas in Africa. We also buy recyclable garbage on every 4th Sunday of the month.
Are your trucks eco-friendly?
Yes. We switched to bio-diesel trucks in 2008. The engines use fuel mixed with refuse cooking oil and emit less CO2 in waste transportation.
Do you sort the garbage out at home?
My wife divides the garbage much better than I do.© Japan Today