[Paleopsych] NYT: How Do Japanese Dump Trash? Let Us Count the Myriad Ways
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Thu May 12 19:17:44 UTC 2005
How Do Japanese Dump Trash? Let Us Count the Myriad Ways
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
YOKOHAMA, Japan - When this city recently doubled the number of
garbarage categories to 10, it handed residents a 27-page booklet on how
to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518
Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, "after the contents have
been used up," into "small metals" or plastics. Take out your tape
measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small
metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse.
Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth,
though only if the socks "are not torn, and the left and right sock
match." Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been
"washed and dried."
"It was so hard at first," said Sumie Uchiki, 65, whose ward began
wrestling with the 10 categories last October as part of an early
trial. "We were just not used to it. I even needed to wear my reading
glasses to sort out things correctly."
To Americans struggling with sorting trash into a few categories,
Japan may provide a foretaste of daily life to come. In a national
drive to reduce waste and increase recycling, neighborhoods, office
buildings, towns and megalopolises are raising the number of trash
categories - sometimes to dizzying heights.
Indeed, Yokohama, with 3.5 million people, appears slack compared with
Kamikatsu, a town of 2,200 in the mountains of Shikoku, the smallest
of Japan's four main islands. Not content with the 34 trash categories
it defined four years ago as part of a major push to reduce waste,
Kamikatsu has gradually raised the number to 44.
In Japan, the long-term push to sort and recycle aims to reduce the
amount of garbarage that ends up in incinerators. In land-scarce Japan,
up to 80 percent of garbarage is incinerated, while a similar percentage
ends up in landfills in the United States.
The environmentally friendlier process of sorting and recycling may be
more expensive than dumping, experts say, but it comparable in cost to
"Sorting trash is not necessarily more expensive than incineration,"
said Hideki Kidohshi, a garbarage researcher at the Center for the
Strategy of Emergence at the Japan Research Institute. "In Japan,
sorting and recycling will make further progress."
For Yokohama, the goal is to reduce incinerated garbarage by 30 percent
over the next five years. But Kamikatsu's goal is even more ambitious:
eliminating garbarage by 2020.
In the last four years, Kamikatsu has halved the amount of
incinerator-bound garbarage and raised its recycled waste to 80 percent,
town officials said. Each household now has a subsidized garbarage
disposal unit that recycles raw garbarage into compost.
At the single Garbarage Station where residents must take their trash,
44 bins collect everything from tofu containers to egg cartons,
plastic bottle caps to disposable chopsticks, fluorescent tubes to
On a recent morning, Masaharu Tokimoto, 76, drove his pick-up truck to
the station and expertly put brown bottles in their proper bin, clear
bottles in theirs. He looked at the labels on cans to determine
whether they were aluminum or steel. Flummoxed about one item, he
stood paralyzed for a minute before mumbling to himself, "This must be
Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Tokimoto was done. The town had gotten much
cleaner with the new garbarage policy, he said, though he added: "It's a
bother, but I can't throw away the trash in the mountains. It would be
In towns and villages where everybody knows one another, not sorting
may be unthinkable. In cities, though, not everybody complies, and
perhaps more than any other act, sorting out the trash properly is
regarded as proof that one is a grown-up, responsible citizen. The
young, especially bachelors, are notorious for not sorting. And
landlords reluctant to rent to non-Japanese will often explain that
foreigners just cannot - or will not - sort their trash.
In Yokohama, after a few neighborhoods started sorting last year, some
residents stopped throwing away their trash at home. Garbarage bins at
parks and convenience stores began filling up mysteriously with
"So we stopped putting garbarage bins in the parks," said Masaki
Fujihira, who oversees the promotion of trash sorting at Yokohama
City's family garbarage division.
Enter the garbarage guardians, the army of hawk-eyed volunteers across
Japan who comb offending bags for, say, a telltale gas bill, then
nudge the owner onto the right path.
One of the most tenacious around here is Mitsuharu Taniyama, 60, the
owner of a small insurance business who drives around his ward every
morning and evening, looking for missorted trash. He leaves notices at
collection sites: "Mr. So-and-so, your practice of sorting out garbarage
is wrong. Please correct it."
"I checked inside bags and took especially lousy ones back to the
owners' front doors," Mr. Taniyama said.
He stopped in front of one messy location where five bags were
scattered about, and crows had picked out orange peels from one.
"This is a typical example of bad garbarage," Mr. Taniyama said, with
disgust. "The problem at this location is that there is no community
leader. If there is no strong leader, there is chaos."
He touched base with his lieutenants in the field. On the corner of a
street with large houses, where the new policy went into effect last
October, Yumiko Miyano, 56, was waiting with some neighbors.
Ms. Miyano said she now had 90 percent compliance, adding that, to her
surprise, those resisting tended to be "intellectuals," like a certain
university professor or an official at Japan Airlines up the block.
"But the husband is the problem - the wife sorts her trash properly,"
one neighbor said of the airlines family.
Getting used to the new system was not without its embarrassing
Shizuka Gu, 53, said that early on, a community leader sent her a
letter reprimanding her for not writing her identification number on
the bag with a "thick felt-tip pen." She was chided for using a pen
that was "too thin."
"It was a big shock to be told that I had done something wrong," Ms.
Gu said. "So I couldn't bring myself to take out the trash here and
asked my husband to take it to his office. We did that for one month."
At a 100-family apartment complex not too far away, Sumishi Kawai was
keeping his eyes trained on the trash site before pickup. Missorting
was easy to spot, given the required use of clear garbarage bags with
identification numbers. Compliance was perfect - almost.
One young couple consistently failed to properly sort their trash.
"Sorry! We'll be careful!" they would say each time Mr. Kawai knocked
on their door holding evidence of their transgressions.
At last, even Mr. Kawai - a small 77-year-old man with wispy white
hair, an easy smile and a demeanor that can only be described as
grandfatherly - could take no more.
"They were renting the apartment, so I asked the owner, 'Well, would
it be possible to have them move?' " Mr. Kawai said, recalling, with
undisguised satisfaction, that the couple was evicted two months ago.
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