"Green" seems to be the buzzword of the 21st century and, as a closet tree-hugger, I couldn’t be happier. Before moving to Japan, my husband and I resided in California, a state that paid us to recycle and ran television commercials to remind us of the benefits. We had a lineup of bags in our kitchen for paper, cans and bottles, and nary a recyclable slipped by under our watchful eyes. Sunday mornings saw me trekking to the local recycling center with sacks in tow, returning home at least $10 or $20 richer. With our recycling skills fine-tuned, we assumed it would be fairly easy to adapt to Japan.
Not so, my friends, not so. Recycling in Japan is like getting a cavity drilled — it’s painful and you’d like to put it off, but it has to be done.
Now, I must confess, I have it pretty easy. Some of my house-renting friends must put up with rules and pickup schedules that are downright mind-boggling. Glass bottles on one day, plastic bottles on another, and plastic packaging every second Tuesday. And if they happen to incorrectly sort their trash, it’s left on the curb — a forlorn reminder that we foreigners have no idea what’s combustible and what’s not, and why a can shouldn’t be lumped in with a bottle (or maybe it should be… oh, the rules are fuzzy).
Yet those friends will learn more quickly than me. See, our recycling/trash area is right across from our apartment front door and shared by the seven other units. All I must do to recycle is make certain the coast is clear before sneaking across to deposit my most-likely-improperly-sorted refuse as I hope to high heaven there are no overtly identifying English labels hiding in among the bags.
But wait — I’ve only detailed the final part of this tedious process. It’s the sorting that makes me want to scream. Never before has the question “paper or plastic” caused so much heartache and distress. I know our ward means well by publishing a colorful how-to recycling guide, complete with overly chipper cartoon characters acting as environmental gurus.
But if I beat my head against the wall for three solid minutes, I would get the same result as attempting to puzzle out their guidelines. Milk cartons are cut and flattened, cardboard and paper bundled, wire binding removed from notebooks, buttons cut off old clothes, and plastic bottles… well, they’re given the equivalent of a prison strip search. Caps come off, labels are removed, and the tiny plastic ring around the neck is wrestled into the bin. Same with glass bottles (peel the labels at least), but they get put in a different bin. Paying attention? Good, someone should — I zoned out a few sentences back.
My frustration level rises even higher after eating lunch in one of our city’s delightful parks or popular lunchtime food courts. Finishing my bento lunch, I approach the waste bins with trepidation, proud of the fact that I can read the kanji explaining which one is for which trash, but still befuddled by what I should do next. Are "waribashi" (chopsticks) combustible? Is Styrofoam the same as plastic? What if I didn’t eat all the ginger with my sushi — where does that go? And do my used soy-sauce packets actually get recycled if I don’t suck out the last vestiges of liquid? I do my best in the face of the pressure but, more often than not, a portion of the offending refuse ends up in my bag. At least at home, I have those handy cartoon mascots to remind me exactly what is and isn’t combustible.
Has my desire to protect our planet diminished in the face of this incomprehensible process? Not really. If nothing else, Japan’s recycling policies have made me re-examine my “green beliefs.” If I truly want to be committed to my stance as an environmentalist, it’s time to start acting the part. I’ve taken to carrying my own canvas bags to the grocery store rather than accruing more plastic sacks. For outings around town and trips to the gym, my reusable water bottle is now my constant companion. And in the case of restaurants and eating out, I have become known among my circle of friends as the one always sporting her own pair of reusable chopsticks.
Do I practice these habits out of sheer love for this Earth? Mostly… but you’ve got to admit, the less trash you generate, the less trash you have to puzzle over when recycling day rolls around.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today