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This picture taken May 2018 shows workers sorting disposable garbage in Narashino, Chiba prefecture. Photo: AFP Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japan’s strict garbage disposal rules confound foreigners and residents – except ‘lawless’ ones in Shinjuku’s Ni-chome

  • Japan has specific regulations on categories of waste and when they should be put out for collection
  • Complex rules have helped Japan shift away from using landfills to dispose of trash and to become a world leader in recycling

As I walk to the rubbish collection point for my neighbourhood, I am fully aware that I am stepping into a minefield. This time, I am pretty confident that I have got it right. The kitchen waste has been drained of excess liquid, the cardboard boxes have all been broken down flat and tied with string and the labels have been torn off the food cans and binned separately.

I have a surreptitious glance at the rubbish the other residents of my small suburban cul-de-sac in Yokohama have already left in the wire mesh depository – and notice to some satisfaction that someone else’s trash from yesterday bears the dreaded label informing them that they have got it wrong.

They either put the wrong type of rubbish out on the wrong day, or committed the more serious sin of combining different types of rubbish in the same bag, burnable and non-burnable, plastics, recyclable trash, tin cans, plastic bottles, ceramics, batteries, pressurised canisters, clothing – the list goes on.

Citizens in Japan most dispose of their trash in a certain way, or it may not be collected. They may also get fined. Photo: Julian Ryall

But not me. I’ve got it right this morning. I mentally pat myself on the back. Mission accomplished.

Not 15 minutes later, I am disabused of that notion and my pride at finally getting the rubbish right is deflated. The doorbell rings. It is the elderly lady who lives at the top of the street and has appointed herself the arbiter of “gomi” etiquette in our community. She beckons. My shoulders slump. I follow her.

Apologetically and with deep bows, she points to the semi-transparent plastic bag I have just deposited. I peer more closely. Wrapped in fluff collected in the vacuum cleaner is a plastic toy train, no more than a few centimetres long. I look at my neighbour. She shrugs. I look back at the offending piece of debris. It is unquestionably plastic. I recover my rubbish and return home to pick out the intruder.

How the bags with the stickers on them initially got past her eagle eyes is a mystery in itself but, working in unison with garbage men, my neighbour keeps us honest when it comes to the trash. And identical scenarios are played out across Japan every day of the week, with foreigners confused by the rules often caught out.
A crane picks up rubbish for incineration at a combustible waste pit at the “Gomi Pit” bar in Tokyo in 2019. Photo: AFP

Indeed, residents of Kyoto in 2018 expressed concern about the soaring number of overseas tourists clogging up the city, with one of the biggest worries being the inability of foreigners staying in Airbnb accommodation to follow the rules on putting the trash out.

Plenty of Japanese are also caught out by the reams of regulations that cover the disposal of household rubbish.

Japan’s history of collecting waste dates back to 1900 with the first laws designed to improve sanitation and avoid epidemics in the nation’s rapidly expanding cities. Urbanisation became even more rapid after World War II and with industrial pollution combining with trash, forced the government to take more extreme measures in the early 1970s.

By the start of the 1990s, Japan was shifting away from simply dumping all waste into landfill sites to a system of treating waste in order to recycle materials that could be repurposed or returned to their basic state and reused.

File photo taken April 2017, shows plastic bottles piled up at a collection facility in Tokyo. Photo: Kyodo

As a result of these initiatives, nearly 93 per cent of steel cans are recycled, the highest rate in the world, while close to 85 per cent of aluminium cans – one of the most commonly used metrics for recycling – are collected and reused.

The concept has also caught on elsewhere, with 15 per cent of the aluminium consumed in China coming from recycled metals, although the figure rises to 66 per cent in the US, 82 per cent in the UK and is approaching 90 per cent in South Korea.

But no other country has such specific regulations on categories of waste and when they should be put out for collection than Japan.

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The Yokohama Municipal Government, for example, has a document that stretches to 16 densely-packed pages providing detailed explanations of just how household waste should be disposed. Nine pages are in English, spelling out that rubbish must be put out before 8am but under no circumstances the night before the collection. And everyone knows when the trash truck is approaching as it gives off a loud jingle, ranging from synthesised versions of classical tunes to the municipal anthem.

According to the regulations, trash has to be in semi-transparent bags and covered in a net to deter urban crows.

The rules also include two types of threats. The first is passive, warning that failure to abide by the rules “will inconvenience your neighbours.” The second is more explicit: “If you do not separate your garbage even after receiving multiple instructions to do so, you will be charged a fine of 2,000 yen (US$17.33).”

Seiichiro Fujii, an associate professor at Daito Bunka University, says most Japanese adhere to the rules on disposing of their household waste simply, but few comprehend the rigours that rubbish collectors have to put up with. And he knows what he is talking about as he spent nine months carrying out “field research” by working on a trash truck in Tokyo.

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“The rules for separating garbage are set by each municipality and there are about 1,700 municipalities across Japan so there are about the same number of sets or regulations for the separation of waste,” he told This Week In Asia.

“Most people dispose of their garbage according to the rules, but some people fail to separate their trash. When that happens, the collectors will refuse to pick it up and just put a warning leaflet on the bag and leave it behind.”

Fujii has written “The work of trash collection: Thoughts on local communities while riding in garbage trucks” which drew on his experiences working from the Shinjuku East Sanitation Centre. Part of his “beat” was the Ni-chome district, famous as the most crowded of all Tokyo’s 13 wards and the hectic gay district.

Fujii said the district was “noted for its denizens’ lawless approach to refuse disposal,” while nine months of collecting rubbish left some indelible memories. Such as the time a bag of what was probably flour exploded in the crusher at the rear of the truck, coating him from head to toe in white powder. He also recalls the excruciating weariness after helping to fill the requisite six garbage trucks per shift.

Customers watch a crane pick up rubbish for incineration at a combustible waste pit while having a drink and snack at the “Gomi Pit” bar in Tokyo. Photo: AFP

The experience has inevitably given Fujii a different perspective on the contribution that garbage collectors make to Japanese society. Many take deep pride in what they do to provide a hygienic environment for their fellow citizens, he says, while anyone who fails to sort out their rubbish is basically insulting their work.

Asked the high and low points of his career on the rubbish trucks, Fujii recalls the time he picked up a garbage bag, it split and the trash covered the road. Another unpleasant experience was “when I came into contact with people who looked down on garbage collectors.”

But the opposite response was uplifting, he said.

“The best feeling was when residents said ‘thank you for everything’ to me.”