This Japanese Town Shows How 'Zero Waste' Is Done

The residents of Kamikatsu, a town of 1,700, sort their trash into 34 different categories.

At the waste collection center in Kamikatsu, Japan, there are separate bins for different types of paper products: Newspapers, magazines, cartons, flyers. Then there are separate ones for cans: Aluminum, spray, steel. There are even individual bins for plastic bottles and caps. But that’s only a handful of the 34 categories that Kamikatsu residents have to sort their trash into, according to a short documentary by Seeker Stories.

It may seem like an overkill, but the small Japanese town, with a population of just over 1,700, is on a mission to become the country’s first ‘zero-waste’ community by 2020. And, they’re almost there. According to the video, Kamikatsu already recycles about 80 percent of its trash, with the last 20 percent going into a landfill. That progress is 12 years in the making. In 2003, Kamikatsu declared its zero-waste ambition after the town gave up the practice of dumping trash into an open fire for fear of endangering both the environment and the population.

There are no garbage trucks, so each resident has to wash, sort, and bring their trash to the recycling center—which residents admit took some time getting used to. A worker oversees the sorting process at the center, making sure trash goes into the right bins. Some used items are taken to businesses to be resold or repurposed into clothing, toys, and accessories.

While Kamikatsu has gotten international attention for its ambitious goal, it isn’t the only town that’s making progress, says Neil Seldman, cofounder and president of Institute for Local Self Reliance. “Berkeley, California, which is several hundred thousand people, is close to 80 percent; San Francisco reports 70 percent; and there are several cities in the U.S. that are over 70 percent,” he tells CityLab. “In Italy, they do it similarly to [Kamikatsu] where they have many different separations and drop off.” For the most part, he adds, the efforts are led by grassroot organizations.

The U.S. only has about a 34 percent recycling rate, according to the latest estimates from the Environmental Protection agencies. Washington, D.C., where CityLab is based, only has about a 16 percent rate. Seldman blames that low rate largely on the fact that 60 percent of the waste market is controlled by two companies—Allied and Waste Management, Inc.—which profit from landfills.

The other thing he blames it on: politics. “You've got the Republicans who don't think the oceans are rising, and they don't care,” he says. “And with the exception of Bernie Sanders, the other two Democratic [presidential] candidates are stats quo candidates.”

Japan, on the other hand, has buckled down on recycling. Businesses are required by law to recycle, and the country’s sorting systems are among the most extensive in the world. In Japan’s second-largest city of Yokohama, with a population of 3.7 million, citizens are given a 27-page manual on how to sort more than 500 different items.

“If you get used to it, it becomes normal,” a Kamikatsu resident says in the video. Now I don’t think about it. It’s become natural to separate the trash correctly.”

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