No Trashcans please, we are Japanese
Via a dolorous lead up
Hola Global Jigsaw Crew,
I am back at my desk after four pretty miserable days of little but enduring. Telling myself, I would be better tomorrow. That it would lift. It wouldn’t always feel like this. And not believing a word of it, even knowing it was true because I’d been through this cycle again and again. And from the ashes the phoenix of a better week did emerge eventually. But while in the process of being burnt down to cinders by the chemo, there is a blackness that is irrational and refuses to respond to the empirical evidence of past experience. “Better” loses its form, its signifier. There is no better, just this misery, and guilt at the vehement absence of positivity. And wallowing has never been my style, but the poison rhythm of the chemo drip infiltrates my thoughts, loud and resistant to banishment.
Well, guess what? I am better today. As I knew-didn’tbelieve would happen. Its strange how despite the fact that I have always been rather transparent about my state of being, mining my reactions to, and observations of that around me for copy, I hesitate much about writing about the mutilations, vulnerability, sanding down of cancer treatment.
Where is the line between authenticity and self pity? And misery really does have a more elementally private quality to it than happiness, and wonder, and all those things that fitting the pieces of this global jigsaw usually engender in me, and I hope, you, dear readers. It does feel grubby and stained - vomiting and drooling and wasting. Spare me the details, is an instinctive, natural reaction.
This was supposed to be an introduction to a piece about what there are so few public trash cans in Tokyo and yet, it remains so clean. Kind of got away from me. I should have waited a day or two in the land of better, probably, before writing. But here we are. The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on etc.
But without further ado, on to the meat of today’s post:
No Trashcans Please, We are Japanese.
Tokyo is an enigma. And at the heart of this puzzle is the lack of dustbins. How do you take a city of 30 million people, with metro lines so packed that people literally having to be shoved into the cabins by professional pushers, and square it with the kind of cleanliness that to Indians is the equivalent of pigs having grown wings? Especially, given the egregious lack of public trashcans.
Japan is foodie heaven, and I spent my years living there constantly grazing on soothing bowls of soba, glutinous gobs of mochi, and flavours of ice-cream undreamt of elsewhere - black sesame, sweet potato, bitter melon. But there was a problem that this gluttony entailed - a constant hunt for somewhere to dispose of the accumulated napkins, bottles, and other miscellanea collected as one chomped one’s way about.
I decided to investigate the reasons for this confounding litter bin lacuna. Its origins lay in the 1995 sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which left 12 people dead on the Tokyo subway. In the immediate aftermath, waste receptacles were first sealed and then removed entirely from train stations and many other public spaces. But, unlike in other countries where similar measures have been undertaken following terrorist attacks, the trashcans were never brought back, forcing residents to adopt some of the world’s more disciplined waste disposal techniques.
Today, it’s believed that public bins would only discourage people from recycling, by giving them the easy way out. Instead, the idea is to nudge folk into take their trash home to subject it to a recycling system that is truly operatic in scale and complexity. Legislation dating to the late 1990s mandated that every household had to separate waste into burnable and non-burnable categories. But this is just the tip of the recycling iceberg. There is a vertiginous array of categories to further sort non-burnables into: plastic and PET (polyethylene terephthalate), cardboard and glass, spray cans and old cloth.
The municipality I had lived in, issued residents with a Mahabharata-sized manual on how to sort some 500 different items. Example: lipstick was usually “burnable,” but an empty tube went into “small metals.” Milk cartons had to be rinsed with water, cut open and dried, then bundled together with items of the same size, with a paper string. That is, unless the interior was processed with an aluminum or wax coating, in which case they went in the non-burnable garbage. We got off lightly. Kamikatsu town in Japan’s Tokushima Prefecture had mandated that garbage be sorted into 45 different types across 13 categories of trash, all in pursuit of its goal of achieving zero waste.
Businesses had to pay — based on weight and volume — for recyclables to be collected. And households had to put their trash for collection in local authority-designated clear bags. PET bottles and glass jars would glint like opals in the sun, they were rinsed so clean before being put out. But if the trash was sorted incorrectly, it was simply not collected. Instead, a large, red sticker was pasted prominently on the bags, leaving the miscreant crushed under the weight of neighbourhood social shame.
On a crisp spring Sunday afternoon in 2019, I had joined a friend for an outing to one of Tokyo’s coolest cocktail joints. Narrow rectangles of burnt amber and orange formed a veil of terracotta, reminiscent of falling rain, over the concrete surface of the modernist building. Inside, a long-haired guitarist crooned Beauty and the Beast. The space was buzzing with hipsters quaffing artisanal drinks of citrus fruit and shitake mushrooms.
But there was a twist, and a rubbish one at that. The cocktail sippers were watching thousands of tonnes of garbage: plastic bags, food waste, and paper being lifted and churned by a gigantic mechanical claw. The cocktails were in fact made of fruit and fungi that had been rejected by supermarkets due to their ‘unacceptable’ texture or shape. The canapés were made of recently expired ingredients. This was the “Garbage Pit Bar,” named for its location inside the waste disposal centre of Musashino, a western suburb of Tokyo.
At the Musashino Garbage Pit Bar, February 2019
Tsutomo Takahashi, the plant supervisor, explained that the idea of starting this pop-up bar had come from the municipality’s epiphany that garbage needed a ‘change of image,’ from an annoyance that no one wants to think about, to something important that everyone should think about.
The processing center in Musashino handled about 80-100 trucks daily, each packed with some 140,000 kg of trash. It took up to three hours to burn 2,500 kg of burnable trash and reduce it to ash. The flue gas released as a byproduct was used to turn electricity-generating turbines that powered all the processing center’s operations, in addition to supplying electricity to nearby buildings like the City Hall and district Community Centre.
At the Garbage Pit Bar
And that was not all. The ash generated was used as a construction material mixed into cement. PET bottles were recycled into new bottles, fabrics and stationery like ballpoint pens. I discovered that the jerseys of soccer teams like Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona have been made of recycled PET bottles from Japan for years.
A major problem with waste that most countries have is with household plastic, a lot of which either gets burned, causing enormous air pollution, or buried in landfills, leading to environmental contamination. In India, for example, an eye-popping 3.5 million metric tonnes of plastic waste are generated annually, according to the Central Pollution Control Board.
In Japan, over 70 percent of PET bottles, 77 percent of other plastic, and over 90 percent of aluminum cans are recycled. But while Japan might rank second only to Germany in the world for plastics management, the figures could be deceptive.
The archipelago is in fact one of the largest exports of plastic waste- so that the recycling rates mentioned above apply only to whatever waste remains inside Japan. According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), in 2020, Japan exported 820,000 tonnes of plastic waster to Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan – some 46% of the total.
There are countries that have better recycling rates than Japan, but the archipelago is unique in the civic culture of cleanliness it has fostered. During the Spring, when the cherry blossoms in Tokyo bloomed in their two week-long splendor, the city’s parks were filled with bacchants, drinking themselves silly under the petaled parasols of the trees. Yet, every group of revelers brought their own gomi (rubbish) bags into which they placed all empty bottles and food packaging. Even the drunkest of sakura enthusiasts staggered home only after ensuring that not a paper napkin had been left in her wake. As an Indian, for me this kind of behavior was almost more extraordinary than the cherry blossoms themselves.
In the recently conclude FIFA football World Cup, the Japanese team did not make it through the round of 16. But the Japanese fans undoubtedly won the gold medal for spectators, given how they left the stadium spick and span after every game, cleaning up not only after themselves, but also likely after visitors from less waste-conscious countries.
That’s it from me for today. This piece was originally published in Open Magazine here.
Please share or comment should you be thus inclined. And becoming a paid subscriber is always recommended :-)
Ciao for now,
I feel so clean myself after reading this piece. It holds a mirror to us in India.
As a child I remember being told in wonder, stories about the speed and punctuality of Japanese bullet trains, as also their sense of cleanliness and wizardry with gadgets.
As an adult, the story of those stories continues with the same sense of wonder.
・Very interesting story. As someone who has spent the last 30 years in Japan, I must say that not few Japanese like to cut corners when it comes to the weekly garbage disposal.
・On the subject of the lack of dustbins in public places, one of my pet peeves is that all trash containers have disappeared from train stations BUT the ones next to the automatic vending machines located on the platforms. In other words, they kindly let you dispose of your garbage as long as it's something you have bought at the station.
・More importantly - and worryingly - apart from the sad fact that, as you pointed out, Japan uses his financial might to send a lot of its trash to other Asian countries, the horrible truth about recycling is that Japanese cities actually burn a lot of the plastic they are supposed to recycle. Check out this interesting story: