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Taking Out the Bins in Japan

(Charlotte North is a British freelance writer who has lived all over the world – including Africa, Asia and the Middle East. She wants to tell you all about it.)

When the Japanese football team lost against Belgium at the World Cup in 2018, they could have been forgiven for leaving the stadium as quickly as possible. Instead, they left behind them an immaculate changing room. Outside, some Japanese supporters (with their fancy dress still on and faces painted) also stayed behind to leave the stands tidy

Many tourists visiting Japan notice how few bins there are in public places and yet how immaculate the streets are. Leaving rubbish is a sign of disrespect and is heavily discouraged. Visitors are encouraged to bring their own plastic bag out with them, such is the sparsity.

And yet, the Japanese love plastic and packaging. In their customer-focused, detail-oriented society, wrapping something carefully to make sure it is perfect is not just encouraged: it is expected. At the supermarket, it would not be unusual to find individual apples surrounded by styrofoam netting, resting on a purple plastic pillow and then encased in cellophane wrapping. At the till, I would be offered a plastic bag to carry it home. Such was the degree of molly-coddling of this humble apple that I began to suspect that it had never even been outside. Though the Japanese tend to frown on eating on public transport, they feast on the bullet trains. This generates an inordinate amount of plastic. One (a bento box bought at the train station) contains no fewer than nine individual pieces of plastic, from functional sachets for sauce and mustard to purely decorative slivers of fake grass. 

As a resident, you quickly learn that this dichotomy means you have to bring your rubbish home with you. Each night I would come home with my pockets overflowing with onigiri wrappers, pocari sweat bottles and cellophane packaging and have to face my nemesis: the complexity of home recycling. 

It sounds simple, but the weekly bin collection could be an ordeal. While the Japanese adore plastic, they take recycling just as seriously. In 2010, 77% of plastic waste was recycled according to the nation’s Plastic Waste Management Institute – roughly double that of the UK. This is partly because of the lack of landfill space available which has encouraged them to legislate on reducing plastic a number of times since 1997. Despite this, they are still the world’s second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita after the US.

Even if certain waste items are not going to be recycled, everything has to be separated – from an individual bottle cap, to removing the outer packaging on bottles, to separating paper envelopes. Each category of recycling (plastics, cans) has two or three sub categories. Even the ring pull on a can has to be separated. 

Despite the abundant guidance with cute cartoons illustrating the minutiae of the system, I often ended up feeling completely confused. I would spend an hour googling different types of cans, trying to translate the pages of guidance and place it all in bags to take downstairs. I would then creep down to the bin room, choosing a time when other residents were least likely to be around to avoid the humiliation of anyone discovering my slapdash recycling. I surreptitiously stowed my rubbish, spreading it out among the 15 tubs and hoped for the best. 

For a few weeks I thought I had got away with it. But one day my landlady, Anzai-san, knocked on the door. She was holding a bin bag with a sticker on it. In broken English and with immaculate manners, she pointed out that Tokyo council had returned it because it had not been sorted correctly. Using her superhuman power of conferring meaning, I immediately understood that the culprit had brought shame on our apartment block. 

She also unfurled her fingers to reveal a used Yorkshire tea bag. There could only be one person drinking imported British tea and that was me. I was confused. I had been carefully putting my tea bags in the food waste disposal unit which let off a satisfying noise as it hungrily gobbled up the bag. This was wrong too, apparently, but how on earth had Anzai-san discovered this?

She backed away with the deepest of bows. Somehow she was conducting detailed inspections of the garbage disposal pipe which connected our third floor flat to hers on the ground floor and it appeared that she was watching my every trip to the rubbish room.  

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Now that I have returned to the UK, I find the laissez-faire attitude with which we only divide our rubbish into a paltry three bins and the enormous rubbish bags of mixed waste almost slovenly. I often think about the combination of detailed scrutiny and the use of public but polite shaming that Anzai-san and the Tokyo authorities employed to change my behaviour. Though it could at times feel a little passive aggressive – or even absurd – it did produce results. Perhaps we need something similar here. 

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