Japan Today



Talking trash

By Jesse Veverka

I’ve always had a hard time remembering to check my pockets for wrappers, tissues and other trash before throwing laundry in the wash. All too often, when I go to retrieve what should be clean clothes smelling of “spring flowers,” “summer rain” or “mountain air,” the soothing artificial scent is there, but so are a million little wadded-up balls of paper or plastic.

What’s bothered me since coming to Japan is that this has been happening more often. Not because of my increasing absentmindedness, but because my pockets contain more trash. And I finally figured out why: it’s because of Japan’s utterly frustrating lack of public trashcans.

I mean, what is it with this place? There’s something wrong when you feel like rejoicing because you’re lucky enough to come across the one public toilet out of 10 that has a place to throw away a dirty tissue. Or feel guilty because you stuffed a wadded-up McDonald’s bag into the bottle-recycling bin next to the vending machine, as it was the next best alternative to throwing it on the street. Or surreptitiously use the area under your seat at karaoke as a dumping station for the bundle of trash you’ve been carrying around for the last three hours.

In fact, it is so hard to find public garbage cans in this country that the few places that do have them, like convenience stores, end up taking on the role of “Japan’s Public Trashcan” in much the same way that McDonald’s functions as “America’s Public Restroom.” So it’s not surprising that my pockets end up stuffed with more trash than they would otherwise. After all, it’s a better alternative than littering.

Other countries with organized waste policies promote the availability of garbage cans in public places, with the simple idea being that it encourages people to throw things away properly, rather than on the street (or the bottle-recycling bin). In developing nations, such facilities are usually limited due to a lack of tax revenue. Yet for some reason, even though Japan makes enormous amounts of public money available for managing municipal waste—as evidenced by the country’s truly intricate recycling programs and the “garbage Nazis” that zealously enforce them—it’s notoriously difficult to find a public “dust box.”

So, lack of funding is not the issue. Instead, I’m told, the thinking goes like this: by limiting the number of public trashcans, you encourage people to “manage their garbage.” Some companies even limit the number of on-premises trashcans in order to be more “eco” (and possibly save a few yen in disposal fees), to the consternation of employees who have to take their bento with them in the morning and their garbage home at night.

Let’s give credit where it is due: Japan produces the least solid waste per capita of all industrialized nations. So obviously, they’re doing something right. No doubt that the high recycling rate has something to do with it—Japan ranks number one in the world in terms of recycling plastic.

Yet, consistent with the Japanese idea of “continuous improvement,” there are certainly some areas that could benefit from a rethink.

For example, just take a look at all of the individually wrapped vegetables in the grocery store—the ones that really get me are three carrots packed both in plastic wrap and a plastic tray. Or how about elaborately wrapping gifts lest your gesture be seen as ill-conceived and offensive?

Simply recycling plastic and packaging is not a cure-all — it is far better to reduce the production of waste in the first place. So rather than making it exceptionally difficult to throw away trash, why not put more emphasis on reducing the production of what becomes garbage in the first place? How about encouraging sales of bulk, unwrapped produce in the grocery store? How about returning to the use of "furoshiki" rather than plastic and paper bags for gift-giving? How about mandating the use of less plastic and individual wrapping and encouraging genuine reuse while at the same time making more public garbage cans available?

Not only would these practices decrease the frustration level in a country where people are stretched to their limits by the pressures of modern life, it would result in less litter in public areas. Because hey, even in Japan, people aren’t perfect.

Jesse Veverka is a film producer and co-founder of Veverka Bros Productions (www.veverkabros.com), with offices in Yokohama and Ithaca, NY.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

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most were removed back in 2005 to prevent "suspicious" packages being thrown inside.. i.e. a bomb.

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When I wasto Takao san, there were many restaurants and food stalls selling food outside in disposal plates and cups and there were NO thrash cans, so everybody had to take the garbage home, climbing and descending the mountain. I think that at least the restaurants who sell garbage packs, should provide thrash bins.

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That's right -- the dust boxes were removed and never replaced, because it costs money to dispose of garbage. Unfortunately, disposal involves incineration, and burning all that plastic packaging is not good for our health. The author wisely suggests a return to the "Furoshiki" carrying cloth; we should ask ourselves why that won't happen. Does plastic packaging represent progress?

(I also found myself walking around with pockets full of litter...)

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Some convenient stores hide their trash cans inside the store because some people throw their kitchen trash into them.

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I recently saw a convenience store that had closed off all their garbage bins and placed a note stating that due to people bringing household garbage to their bins and excessive cost the bins were no longer in use. If I had noticed before I bought my food I would have chosen a differnt store to purchase from. In future they will not get my money...let's see how their profits go.

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I actually see cabbies toss trash in the front basket of parked bikes, kids leaving ramen cups in the park. I often tell the Japanese hedoutekudasai.....a look of horror....and then follow up with....you should be ashamed of yourself. I honestly think Japan has a littering problem--kids to oyajis.

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When I first came to Tokyo I bought bottled water from a vending machine, walked away and then made the obvious discovery that there wasn't any trash cans. Now I use the convenience store method to dispose. The only other options are train stations.

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Just walk into any JR train station and there are trash cans everywhere. My2sense, were you in Japan in the 80s? If you were, you'd know the situation has gotten a lot better. I rarely if ever see people littering in Tokyo (gum, cigs, paper, etc)

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I find litter to be worse here than back home - that should be embarrassing for Japan.

How about using my tax money to setup trash cans in public places? Then setup a trash-collecting force, giving jobless people something to do? I'd rather see that then damns in the middle of nowhere and half-completed, totally unnecessary bridges all over the country side.

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My plastic garbage is bigger in volume than all the other types of garbage because of the multiple plastic packages in which food is sold. The quantity of food in one package is very small but it is packed with multiple plastic wraps. I think this is one of the biggest contradiction, buying numerous plastic wraps coming with the food and then refusing to have a plastic bag at the cash register.

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Let’s give credit where it is due: Japan produces the least solid waste per capita of all industrialized nations.

This site suggests that Italy, Austria, and Germany are lower.


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@borscht These data are kind of old (1993?). Note, they list Czechoslovakia.

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Do what Japanese people do-- be a trash tourist. I live in a rural area and am amazed at the amount of garbage people from the city throw away here. everything from plastic bags with the family's bentos to TV sets and refrigerators. This is such a beautiful country; it's just a shame that the people are so dirty.

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bipedal, I know. So I guess Italy, Germany, and Austria are 20-years ahead of Japan? Who knows, maybe the garbage laws in Europe have gotten more lax since then.

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Jesse Veverka's articles remind me of questions I had my first year in Japan.

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In my opinion Tokyo(japan) and even Hong Kong are a lot cleaner than many places I have visited.

Yes, there are few rubbish bins in Tokyo, but than you got a Combini at nearly every street-corner.

They don't mind if you drop a handful of rubbish, etc but way too many people bring whole bags of rubbish from lunch, home, etc.

I normally move around by bicycle so I always got a backbag with me, one compartment I use for rubbish(gets thrown at home).

Also I am careful where I shop, lots of the food(example) I buy in bulk, this measn I get 1kg of mince/vewggies or 2kg of chicken in ONE bag. Back home I just repackage into ziploc-bags(reuse-able and freeze).

My ward burns all plastic rubbish and you can stand next to the building and you won't even know they are doing it. They use a High-heat Incerator(sic) with filters in the stack.

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Many people say there are no trash cans because of the AUM thing from 15 years back wherein bombs were said to have been placed in them. However, 15 years on, this seems an unlikely excuse. I have bemoaned the lack of public trash cans for 25 years here yet it never changes. The reason must be that people here think of anywhere outside their own house as fair game for lobbing their trash as, hey, it's not their place so who cares ? Also, the babying nature of J society toward its charges leads them to conclude anything goes as society will take care of it.

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bicultural do you still live in japan? I live in Nagoya and every time I go to the park you can tell a bunch of teenagers have been there, ramen cups, pocky boxes, toppo boxes, cigarette packs and beer cans and pet bottles all over the ground.

When I was in Kyoto I watched people stuff plastic bottles into the bushes. At my husbands parents house they have a walk way running behind all the houses in Komaki and the runners and high school students going back there also stick their drink bottles into the bushes as well. I see tons of litter here and think more public garbage cans are needed.

When I see trash in the park I want to pick it up and throw it away but then I look around and see nowhere to throw it. such a shame.

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Believe it or not, it forces you to take small bits of trash home with you, as I have learned to do. They have the same trash strategy in Taiwan and Korea as well.

But as other posters mentioned, it's also a matter of knowing where you are, and knowing where a trashcan will likely be. Stations, Conbini's, in front of a few supermarkets.

People think the states has a better trash management system, but that is only because the trash collection agencies are highly unionized, and have ties to organized crime. More public trash cans means more business for the unions. So it's not entirely convenience motivated.

But I do miss having a huge dumpster in front of my apartment, like in the states, where you could throw anything (paper, plastic, TV sets, old bikes) and nobody would say boo.

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I get the feeling this author doesn't like Japan very much...

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Another reason that you have more trash in your pockets is that you get a receipt for EVERYTHING!!!!. Why I am given a receipt every time I buy a coke, an onigiri a pack of gum or my Starbucks is beyond me. What is the purpose of all of these receipts?? Is there a government audit taking place or something?? And think of all the paper being wasted, 30 million people getting receipts everyday for cheap meaningless items.

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What is the purpose of all of these receipts?? Is there a government audit taking place or something?? And think of all the paper being wasted, 30 million people getting receipts everyday for cheap meaningless items.

the receit is a proof that the purchase is correctly registered by the shop and consumption tax is no evaded.

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Is there a country they don't give you receipts for purchases?

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usually near the cash registers there is a small thrash bin just for receipts in case you do not need to keep yours.

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I don't see what the big deal is with not having trash cans everywhere. If I'm out somewhere and I have a wrapper from something I bought to eat or an empty cup or bottle of something I bought to drink, I just put it in my bag and throw it in the trash when I get home.

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USA, Spain, Italy, Germany, Thailand, UK, Denmark, Singapore, etc, etc., Most countries will only give you a receipt for miscellaneous low cost items like a coke if you asked for it. As far as proof that your 120Y coke is correctly registered and taxed give me a break. The tax is included in the price plus why do you need to audit the cost of 120-500Y worth of stuff?? Yes I know there is a receipt box but the point is why waste the paper in the first place?

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I haven't done retail in ages but I think the shop owners want tapes run for all sales to prevent stealing by the cashiers. Receipts are just part of that.

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Anyone who has lived /been coming here for years will remember that before the Aum Subway attack there used to be trash cans everywhere. After the attack, they were all removed.

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Many stations put them back now with nice clear parts. So that you can go see what's inside.

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Many of the cash-registers use a double tape where one copy goes to the customer and one remains on the roll.

Newer ones store the info internally in memory to be recalled at the end of the day.

I agree taht the stubs are a pain but many people use them for book-keeping at home(my wife was such a person who recorded every purchase).

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Taking the trash has always been something you forget to do. But always remember to pay your trash pick up service or you will end up with lots of trash and nowhere to put it. I forgot to pay the <a rel="follow" href="http://www.couserhauling.com/bulk_trash.html">Baltimore trash pickup</a> service once and they did not come for two weeks , it was terrible.

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I think that trash cans should be placed in all public areas and streets, if not you end up with junk and trash all over your city.

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