“We are very advanced here in Japan.” The phrase was spoken through a nervous laughter and clenched teeth. This was how my boss sought to justify the unjustifiable lunacy that is Japan’s waste disposal and recycling management system.
Having never lived solo in a residential area in Japan before, I sat dumbfounded as the plump Japanese man behind the counter at the city hall began handing me my garbage documents. First a pamphlet in Japanese…then an English translation of the same material…then a fully printed schedule of dates and times…then a map showing two separate trash pickup zones at opposite ends of the city. By the time we got to the wall sized poster featuring some 26 different varieties of trash, I was fighting back laughter. Was this for real?
As far as I can surmise, Japan has taken it upon itself to create the single most complex and baffling process of waste disposal / recycling known to man. The core idea is that one must separate their garbage into two distinct categories; burnable and unburnable. For example, a burnable piece of waste would be a stinky fish head or an athletic sock. An unburnable item would be the plastic casing to my asthma inhaler. Seems intuitive enough right?
It was likely around this point during the annual meeting of the Japanese National Garbage Association that all the sanitation officials present cracked open cases of beer and threw reason out the window.
In the twisted trash world envisioned by these bureaucrats, garbage disposal wasn’t to be a universal right for the masses, but rather a privilege granted only to those select few citizens disciplined enough to study books on the subject or run garbage drills late into the night.
In this vein, below are just a small sample of the actual rules and regulations for waste disposal in my suburban city of To-on:
>Cans, glass bottles, and other assorted glass items will be collected on the first Sunday of every month at location #2
>Plastic bottles must first have their caps removed and then be placed in a clear plastic bag. Meanwhile, the bottle caps themselves and all other types of non-bottle-related plastics must be placed in a different clear plastic bag with the word “plastic” written legibly on the side. Both types of plastic items will be collected on the second and fourth Sundays of the month at location #2.
>Milk cartons must be washed, cut into strips along the seams, rewashed, hung out to line dry, tied with twine, and then returned to a special bin in front of the local grocery store.
>Small paper scraps may be disposed of with burnable waste, which will be collected in a green bag on Wednesday and Saturday of each week at location #1. Garbage must be placed outside only between the hours of 6 and 8 AM.
>Paper items that cannot rightly be categorized as “scraps” (including magazines, newspapers, envelopes, wrapping paper, and plastic coated paper shopping bags) are to be neatly arranged and tied with twine. They will be collected every Thursday at location #1 and must also be placed outside only between the hours of 6 and 8 AM.
…and the list goes on…
The kicker is that one must write their name, neighborhood, and house number on every garbage bag. The printed name and address ensure that the appropriate punishments can be handed down when you panic and throw away that empty tube of toothpaste in the bag that was supposed to contain the empty shampoo bottle instead.
For the first time in my adult life I can honestly say that I am scared shitless of my own garbage. My nightmares are now filled with yogurt cups, bubble wrap, and egg cartons. It’s enough to make you want to stop consuming any products at all. Perhaps that’s the point of this whole sick and twisted social experiment.
The previous tenant of this apartment decided to be disrespectful and leave opened and half-eaten food in most of the kitchen cupboards. The result is that I now have piles of stale, moldy, and bug infested food in need of a welcoming trashcan. Of course, with the system the way it is here, I have no way to easily get rid of this junk. My boss told me I should separate out all the food materials from their packaging. I told her that I flat out refused to dig through moldy and bug infested food, especially when the stuff is not even mine!
Because of situations like this, I have already spent ample free time brainstorming ways to game the system. One idea I thought of was walking to a nearby home and copying the kanji for their family name off the placard by the front door. This way I could write their name on my bags and submit my garbage with theirs. Won’t the Sakai family be surprised when ol’ Gramps is hauled away by the ward police for improperly disposing of his Fruit by the Foot wrappers?
If that doesn’t work, I have already accepted the fact that I may be forced to take all of my garbage to a remote area of the island for a controlled wild fire. So, if you read in the paper about a large section of protected Shikoku wilderness being suddenly destroyed by flames, you’ll know that the trash man drove me to it. But, I suppose when you stop and think about it, natural wilderness fits into the burnable category already, so I just have to make sure that I torch it on either Wednesday or Saturday between 6 and 8 AM.