separating your combustibles from your recyclables

Was looking through my Secondary 4 elective geography stuff when I found this rather entertaining newspaper article on recycling in Japan……

 

Separating your combustibles from your recyclables
By Kavitha Rao

Taking the garbage out is never much fun, but in Japan it is sheer agony. When I first arrived in Japan, I “oohed” and “aahed” over the exquisite groceries, especially the beautiful packaging, delicate ribbons, and the myriad gift-wrappings. That didn’t last long. Now, when I buy a charming box of rice crackers, I just worry about how much garbage I am going to have to dispose of.

The first thing every resident in Japan learns is how to sort garbage, or gomi, as it is called in Japanese. The second is how not to. How complicated could this be, you think? Very.

On the first day you move into an apartment, your landlady will hand you a copy of the “Garbage commandments”. Garbage in Japan needs to be sorted into combustible, non-combustible and recyclable categories before disposal on the communal garbage heap. Combustibles are collected twice a week, non-combustibles and recyclable garbage just once a week.

Miss your day and you will have to put up with your garbage for another week, because you are not allowed to dispose of any garbage until the day it is to be collected.

Figuring out what goes in which category is the modern Japanese version of Zen meditation. Batteries? Rubber gloves? Plastic bottles? Wine bottles? Beer cans? Old shoes? Garbage also has to meet strict recycling standards. Cans need to be rinsed, cardboard boxes flattened, newspapers bundled and tied, glass marked “dangerous”, waste in nappies removed, cooking oil “seeped” and plastic bottle caps packed separately from the bottles.

Big deal, you say. Who’s to know if you do or you don’t? Here lies the diabolical cunning of the scheme. The garbage collectors refuse to collect garbage unless every bag on the heap meets the necessary standards. So toss your boxes away unflattened or your cans unrinsed, and everyone in the neighbourhood will be on your case.

In addition, every neighbourhood has the “Garbage Nazis” – unofficial monitors who keep a lookout for garbage violations. These are usually bored obachans (grandmothers) who can afford to spend all day gazing out of the window or sweeping their front yard, and do. Garbage bags have to be transparent, so if you are throwing out coffee grounds and eggshells on a day meant for plastics, the obachans will know.

In the early hours, the streets are filled with people hurrying to throw their garbage out before the delivery truck comes by at the unearthly hour of 8.00am. You are not allowed to leave the garbage out the previous night. And woe betide any layabouts who fail to meet this deadline, which is not relaxed even on weekends.

Murphy’s law of garbage dictates that you will stagger out of the door in your pyjamas, bleary-eyed, wrestling with an unwieldy sack of waste, only to realise that the garbage truck has just rattled by. The street may appear to be completely deserted, but if you try to sneak your garbage bag onto the dump, an immaculately made-up obachan will materialise from nowhere and mercilessly motion you onward. I know, because I have tried, and had to slink shamefacedly home.

Most gaijins (foreigners) have their own “garbage Nazi” horror stories to relate. Catherine, a neighbour, cringes when she remembers how she put newspapers (recyclables) out on the day meant for combustibles. Her next door neighbour knocked on her door, frostily handed back the newspapers, then departed without a word.

Lisa, another friend, indignantly recalls how she woke up one morning to find a large English sign smack in front of her door warning residents to sort their garbage properly. Since she was the only foreign resident in the neighbourhood, she figured it could only have been aimed at her.

To make things even more difficult, there are virtually no garbage bins on the streets. There are plenty of bins for cigarette butts, and sometimes fancy recycling bins for plastic bottles and cans, but none exist for banana peels, candy wrappers or tissues. That’s because Japanese people do not eat on the street, and carry their litter home. If you have children, as I do, this means your pockets will be a gummy mass of sweet wrappers, half-eaten biscuits and tissues.

If all this sounds like a drawn out version of hara-kiri, Japan’s tough garbage laws are not without some basis. The average Japanese citizen produces one kilo of garbage a day, which means that Japan is probably the biggest source of waste polyvinyl chloride plastic in the world. It is also estimated that Japan’s total landfill space will be completely used up within 30 years.

The problem is though, that the right hand often does not know what the left is doing. So while garbage codes get progressively more draconian, grocery stores go overboard on packaging. Just buying a small box of biscuits involves getting rid of the outer cardboard box, the inner plastic tray, and the individual paper wrapping for each biscuit.

And pity the millions of hapless salarymen who subsist on obentos (a boxed Japanese meal). Every time they buy one, they will end up with one plastic shopping bag, one plastic top, one bottom tray, two wooden chopsticks, one paper wrapping for the chopsticks, one toothpick in its paper wrapper, one foil cup for the oshinko (pickled radish), one wet towel, the plastic outer wrapper and one receipt. Sorting these correctly could take up their whole lunch hour.

Garbage has taken over my life. I have a tendency to oversleep on weekends, so I have to put aside a small room merely to hold my overdue boxes and plastic bags. At dinner parties, I hover over guests like a hawk making sure they don’t toss the beer cans in with the peanut shells.

When I browse in Tokyo’s swank homeware stores, I pass over the stylish crockery and make straight for the garbage bins and twist ties. Somewhere out there is the bin that will make sense of my tottering heap of garbage.

Still, I try to look on the bright side; my tales of garbage sorting make great dinner party stories; I get my exercise sprinting to catch the garbage truck every morning; and when I finally leave Japan, I will appreciate my weekend lie-ins like never before.

The Telegraph 30 December 2002

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