Live in Japan 101: How To Deal With Your Waste

by - Desember 15, 2017


Every country has their own way to manage their waste. In my home country Indonesia, people get used to mixing all the waste, because that is how the municipality will collect it. In Japan, turns out, it is not throw-it-all-to-one-bin. Even as someone who works in waste management industry, back then when I just arrived in Japan I had to learn how I should manage my waste at home. I had read how the Japanese manage waste back then in my bachelor time, yet I only understand the detail when I do it myself. Thus, I decided to share this with fellow foreigners who are going to live in this country as well as for fellow Indonesian who might curious about how one developed country handles its waste.

The basic three classifications
Since aged ago, Japanese get used to burning their waste. This practice results in two most basic classifications of Japanese waste collection system: combustible and incombustible. As recycling demand increasing, nowadays, the two basic classifications have developed into three: combustible, incombustible, and recyclables.

In my apartment in Kyoto, I use these basic three classifications. The first is combustible, which include food waste, kitchen waste, as well as leftover materials made from paper. In Indonesia, we consider these combustibles as biodegradable waste. One might wonder – if it’s biodegradable, why do Japanese burn it? According to Japan Global Environment Centre Foundation, biodegradable waste is recovered, not burned, only in small and medium cities – where the location is close to farm and agricultural site. As far as my concern, encouragement to the citizen in large cities to do composting and similar activity is very uncommon to be found.

The second classification is incombustible – or in Kyoto case, plastic packaging waste.  The waste may include plastic sachet, plastic sheet, plastic bag, basically anything made from plastics. There are some exceptional materials such as toothbrushes, toys, buckets, ballpoint pens, and CD cases that should be disposed of as combustible waste. According to Japan Ministry of the Environment, the Japanese have started to segregate packaging waste since 1997 and currently around 75% of Japanese cities participate in this classification. However, should a city not include plastic packaging waste in their segregation system, the law stated that the plastics should be disposed of as combustible waste. And the last classification will be a recyclable waste, which includes PET bottles, cans, and glass bottles.
The three classifications: combustibles, plastics, recyclables
The collection system
Here in Kyoto, there are three waste collection systems that I am aware of: regular collection by the municipalities, regular group collection by the local community, and voluntary collection at the designated place.  The most basic one is the regular collection by the municipalities, who will collect three basic waste classifications on different days of the week.

To have my waste collected by the municipalities, I have to buy specific plastic bags: a yellow one for combustible waste and the clear one for plastic and recyclables. The price of the plastic bag vary and so is the price – the yellow bag ranges from 50 yen for 5L size to 450 yen for 45 L size and the clear bag ranges from 50 yen for 20L size to 110 yen for 45L size. Furthermore, unlike in Indonesia, my waste is not collected all mixed 2-3 times a week. Instead, there are different days for different waste throughout the week. In my apartment, combustibles will be collected on Tuesday and Friday, while recyclables are on Wednesday and plastics on Thursday. Every city in Japan has different plastic bags for waste and different policy regarding the collection system. Even within Kyoto, the collection schedule might be different from one area to another.

What’s more on the Japanese collection system is that they have a group collection by the local community. For example, here in my apartment, they collect newspaper, magazines, cardboard, as well as beverage cartons separately every once in a while (I unfortunately still not recognized when, it just disappeared every time I put in the designated location). There is also a voluntary collection, which means you have to take some specific waste such as batteries and lamps to the designated place (usually supermarkets) where they have a segregated collection bin. Do take a note that for bulky waste such as futon (Japanese bed), you will need to call the municipality collection centre, and you need to pay 400 yen for a special pick up.

For me, I do separate all my waste wholeheartedly here because I do not have such system and infrastructure privilege in Indonesia. It might seem too much for people who get used to mixing their waste, but really, it is not a sin to help easier the work of people who clean up our mess, isn’t it?
Segregated plastic packaging waste in the neighbourhood, waiting for pick up

The voluntary collection point at local supermarket
Truck that pick up the combustible waste
Where does all the waste go?
Had experienced visiting almost all kind of municipalities waste treatment facilities in Japan, I still curious to follow the waste truck every time I saw it. Anyway, the waste goes to different places according to the segregation criteria. The combustibles go to an incineration plant, the one you might have seen in Toy’s Story movie. Meanwhile, the plastics and the recyclables usually go to a material recovery facility (MRF) first, before being picked up by the recycling companies. Yap, they do further separation of the waste in the MRF, even though the citizens already segregate at source (and they will do it again at the recycling plant). The remaining from the incinerator (which mainly ashes) will be landfilled. Some of the landfill in Japan is used for reclamation area, such as the New Sea Surface Disposal Site in Tokyo, which will be developed into leisure area, one of them named “Umi no Mori”. Another example of post-landfill utilization is the beautiful Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

Municipal waste incinerator in Hirakata city, Osaka
Inside the incinerator: it's your waste ready to be burned!
Material Recovery Facility, in which plastics are recovered, in Kawasaki city
Landfill as reclamation area - the new Sea Surface Disposal Site for Tokyo's waste (right).
Courtesy of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Environment | Photo from Japantimes.com
Moerunuma Park, used to be a landfill. Photo from good-hokkaido.info
Closing Remarks
Every city in Japan has their own policy regarding waste segregation and collection, thus what I have here might be different from other cities in Japan. For those who are going to live in Japan, need not to worry, waste management is one of the basic living guidance that will be informed to you by the landlord of your dorm or apartment once you arrive. For those who curious – what I have here is only the basic of Japan’s daily waste management system that I experience. Those who learn about the economic, the politic, as well as the management of waste management in Japan maybe understand that it is not always like it seems. As much as the Japanese system looks good here, it does not necessarily mean their system is better or they recycle more than other countries. One day, I might share more on the behind-the-scenes of the recycling system in Japan. As for now, hopefully, this gives you a useful insight. Cheers!

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