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It isn’t easy being green in Japan

21 Comments
By Mandy Bartok

"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).

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21 Comments
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Nicely written and something we can all sympathise with, I think.

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the less trash you generate, the less trash you have to puzzle over when recycling day rolls around.

Overall the most important thing to learn in this article.

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For a nation and culture that is supposedly 'in touch with/close to nature', Japan sure likes to concrete things and destroy the natural world. When I was living in Tokyo, I ended up not caring about the recycling, as regardless of what it was, it went to the incinerator which made the careflul sorting of plastics, etc. pointless. Not to mention the amount of packaging on things....

Less trash, less fuss for sure - especially in Japan.

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This person is well on her way to a nervous breakdown if she can't figure out glass is glass and not plastic or paper (recycling bottles vs bottles with paper and plastic attached.) It's more tedious than 'mind-boggling.'

The part I didn't understand for a long time was that the glass bottle had to be washed. Why? Don't they wash them before they re-use them? Then a wise old woman told me it was to keep the vermin population down. I guess rats like to drink left over sake.

I agree with Nordon. The most important (perhaps only important) sentence was the last one.

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A futile, band-aid approach. What's needed is re-education to eliminate such wasteful and useless items in the first place, like disposable chopticks, plastic bento boxes, 3-layers of wrapping, and those little green sheets of plastic they place in sushi for presentation purposes.

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borsht - all glass bottles should be washed for recycling. There are some problems here. There are so many different sizes and types of bottles. One machine can wash some different bottles but can not wash all. People have to sort all kinds of bottles for recycling and not recycling. There are not enough number of certain types of bottles for recycling business. Beer bottles used to be washed and recycled, but not any more, because tin took bottle.

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I think there is this perception in the rest of the world that Japan is this green friendly country, but this definitely is not true. Japanese society is able to mascade its mentality for wastefulness with efficient techology and adherence to maximizing a limited amount of space. In reality , the Japanese only seem to adapt somewhat green policies when it is in their economic and material interest. But we are never going to save the planet if the movtivation for our actions are predominately determined by economic-rational choice decisions. Jeff-Lee is absolutely correct when he refered to recycling as merely a bandaid approach. Going green is not purchasing "green" friendly products or making sure that plastic waste goes into the correct rubbish bin. Living a "green" life is living a simple life; less consumption, being content with little material possesions and education.

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I totally sympathize with her. As someone who has lived here for 2 1/2 years, in 2 different metropolises, I know what it's like- even when you speak Japanese (I do), it's still a never-ending list of unwritten little regulations on throwing out trash that drives me nuts! I've gotten into the habit of simply washing out anything that held liquid, but I still try my best, and throw stuff out late at night (you're supposed to wake up really early and throw things out, not throw it out the night before, and I think that's ridiculous!)

I still have to watch out for what I call "garbage nazis"- my affectionate name for the volunteer garbage scanners (usually middle-aged housewifes) who love to open other's trash after they see them drop it off and chastise them for not sorting correctly.

I know others here would say, "I live here too and it's not hard! You're just lazy!"- to them, do you actually KNOW how many little rules there are? I have a clue, and follow all the ones I know as best I can, but I bet you are throwing out stuff improperly every day. Even many young Japanese don't have a clue on a lot of it.

My point is, if you live in an area like a public apartment complex, where a LOT of nosy housewives can scrutinize your garbage habits (the last place I lived), it can be a living hell just to throw out your mostly-correct trash. Honestly, sometimes I just give up. The rules here for some of it are ridiculous even to Japanese that I speak to.

In my country, people are paid to sort this stuff out at the dump FOR YOU. Why not in Japan, where there is a constant need for new jobs?

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In my country, people are paid to sort this stuff out at the dump FOR YOU

I'm pretty sure your country is not Germany. People here do separate their trash into many (10 or so?) different catagories. And they don't think it is ridiculous.

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The author of this article must be a moron if they cannot figure out the simple rules - and those that state that they are deliberately trying to by-pass the simple rules that a schoolchild can understand, are the non-green idiots.

And by the way, the system works. As one example, here in Japan, the recycling level of PET bottles is higher than any other industrialized nation.

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The part I didn't understand for a long time was that the glass bottle had to be washed. Why?

The bottles don't get reused, they get recycled. A mountain of bottles all containing that last half-a-thimbleful of sake/wine/juice/whatever attracts rodents and creepy-crawlies in search of a feast, and also stinks to high heaven once the left-overs start to go off. Specially in summer.

In my neighbourhood we are also asked to wash out aluminium cans - the schoolkids (kodomo-kai) collect the empties for pocket-money, and there were several incidents of kids puking at the smell of two-month-old beer.

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The washin', the storin'... Just throw it in the trash already.

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I know others here would say, "I live here too and it's not hard! You're just lazy!"- to them, do you actually KNOW how many little rules there are? I have a clue, and follow all the ones I know as best I can, but I bet you are throwing out stuff improperly every day.

Yeah, I hear ya. I assume videotapes are moyasanai, but the city hall didn't answer an e-mail for clarification. The English-language literature is confusing. This year Sapporo will go to a pay by the bag system. I asked a friend who works for the city how much taxes that was going to save me. Being clever, she picked up on my arch comment right away, although I almost made her cry. Another friend said he heard it's acutally better for a certain amount of plastic to be left in moeru gomi because otherwise they need to add fuel in order to combust it, especially when it's wet. A good guide would say something like this: You're going to need X number of bins...and work down from there.

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Sod 'em. I dump my rubbish in the moany bastards rice field next to my house. Really pisses him off, about as much as he pisses me off staring at my wife when the curtains are open.

Let being green be optional.The council should take away any rubbish, or expect fly tipping.

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If it hadn't been for the last sentence, this article could have been trash itself. We are ALL responsible for the trash we generate, and in Japan, I have witnessed the most sophisticated methods to attempt to reuse and recycle by segregation. Unlike other countries, here the onus is on individuals to act responsibly and not the local goverment to nanny people. Having said that, you (author) may be interested to learn that the local ward office would probably bend over backwards to help you understand what is and what is not burnanble - just pay them a visit.

We should all be grateful that the UK model of centralised colection is not adopted. More energy is burned in driving low volumes of cans and bottles to recycling centres than can ever be recovered (i.e. avoided) by recycling.

An article with its heart in the right place, but a little off the pace!

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I've been thinking over other comments here, and I have to say I've changed my mind- specifically gyoza's. The idea of making everyone separate their own garbage is a brilliant idea, even if annoying- it makes everyone individually responsible for being "eco". I don't know why I didn't see it that way before. It fosters a sense of ecological responsibility in people that I wish my country had.

That said, there are some things about this system in Japan that, even if you agree with it completely, still make life aggrivating- it encourages others to spy on your garbage output (and those volunteers DO- they will track you down through anything they can find in your trash), creating a sort or cold-war atmosphere for a daily resident, and the other thing is really the RULES THEMSELVES. Somethings honestly defy all logic throwing them out, and even asking doesn't help! Especially with plastics, you used to need a special number printed on something to group it with PET bottles, now it's all together- it confused too many people!

Other things, like FOLDING milk cartons, I have yet to see a reason for. I wash out anything in a carton, but I don't break them down and fold them in the proper order (yes, there is one!). It makes no sense at all, and no explanation I have heard makes sense for much of it.

So in short, it's an enviable system, but somethings defy or confuse everyone (how do you throw out kero-soaked newspapers from a kero-spill?), and the foreign-language guides for trash removal are less than helpful. What do you do if you live in the countryside? Hell, even in Sapporo there is barely anyone who speaks English in trash offices- I'm lucky I speak Japanese.

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If throwing your garbage out is so confusing, maybe the recycling office at city hall needs a bit of that American 'kaizen' I've been reading about.

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To get people to do their part in recycling, by reducing the amount of waste they generate, reusing as much as possible, and recycling everything that can be, we need to see where our efforts fit into the whole picture. If we know what the city is going to do with our washed, dried, folded milk cartons, or how having a little plastic collar left on it affects recycling an empty soy sauce bottle, we're more likely to feel the effort is worth it. This is where Japanese systems shoot themselves in the foot. They make it so complicated, and nobody up and down the line actually seems to know the reasons for the rules. One UK local authority reckoned that for people to follow a recycling system it should have no more than 3 different categories of waste. The rest would be down to professional recycling workers or machines. When I move to a new place in Japan, I try very hard to learn the new set of recycling rules, which generally clash with whatever I learnt to do in the previous place. I search out and study the badly translated leaflets or stand at the building's trash cage and read the notices. Most in my building don't follow the rules. I agree totally with what the author says. Dealing with the way they do it here puts you off being green. And when are they actually going to go after the businesses and stop them generating most of the trash? Each customer goes out of a bakery with more plastic around their 10 or so purchases than our household throws out in a week. Like someone said above, totally band-aid green

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I'm the only foreigner in my mansion block and from what I have gathered one of the only ones who follows the gomi rules. doesn't stop the crappy English notes through my letterbox blaming me for the arse next door's laziness though.

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When I move to a new place in Japan, I try very hard to learn the new set of recycling rules, which generally clash with whatever I learnt to do in the previous place.

Agree - but this isn't restricted to Japan though. Each county in the UK seems to have variations and I haven't found consistency in any country yet! As for washed/dried/folded flat - you may be surprised (or horrified) that this is just an extra step to reduce wasted energy. The flatter the item , the more can be carried in one truck. Washed/dried to stop the milk (or other content) going off as the period between disposal and recycle can be long as enough material is gathered.

Although you state it may be the way it is done "here" that could put people off, I think it is just the fact that suddenly we have been put in a position where we have to think about what we throw away. Up until recently it was "natural" to throw stuff away. Now that we have to think about it, we get a bit p'd off because of the extra effort. We have to get used to it, and start to consider the impact we have.

I feel for BlackFlag - sometimes it is easier to pin the blame on the "foreigner" but don't take it lying down! Show your mansion kanrin'in your garbage EVERY time you throw it out and ask him or her to help write crappy notes in Japanese for you to pop in to the letterbox of the lazy R's next door!

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Japan has pretty much given up on recycling a while ago.Almost everything is lumped together and burnt now-to heat council buildings,swimming pools etc.It is all about money and always was.Do not get any crazy ideas that there is any environmental friendly issue here. If there is a money reason they will do it. Actually most Japanese in Tokyo blame Koreans and Chinese for ruining the recycling system by ignoring it and making it too difficult to do the sorting. Its all a big mess.Heaven help us!

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