One of the biggest differences between living in Canada and living in Japan is the disposal of garbage and recycling. Canada is a large, underpopulated country with lots of space to bury garbage. Japan is a small, densely populated country that doesn’t have the luxury of extra space. Garbage disposal in Japan requires some serious planning and lots of rules.
In Canada, most cities have weekly trash and recycling collection at homes. Some businesses and apartment buildings hire waste disposal companies to manage their needs. Garbage day in a house usually consists of putting some bags outside and an unsorted bin of recyclable materials. As long as you get the garbage out on the right day, all is well.
Garbage day in Japan is nowhere near as simple. Getting rid of garbage or recycling in Japan is a stressful, confusing experience. There is a never-ending amount of classifying, sorting, and then dealing with the neighbourhood garbage police.
Sorting, so much sorting
To prepare for garbage day in Japan, all garbage needs to be sorted into three main categories: burnable, non-burnable, and recycling. Burnable trash usually includes organic material (kitchen waste, etc) and waste paper. Non-burnable is anything that is not burnable or recyclable. Recycling includes anything with the recycling mark on it. There are some different local rules about what fits in each category, and the collection days might be different for all three. Schedules are usually only provided in Japanese, which is just one more great reason for English teachers to learn the local language.
Fear the garbage police
Since garbage sorting needs to be done correctly, some areas make use of the garbage police. This is my unofficial term for the volunteers who oversee garbage collection day, usually for an apartment or area with a central pickup location. Garbage police are volunteers, and they are typically the most cranky senior citizens that can be found in the area. I think they actually enjoy telling people they are doing something wrong.
The biggest cause for error on garbage day is recycling. Unlike most places in Canada where you can throw all of your recycling in one bin and forget about it, in Japan you need to sort everything by type (paper, plastic, metal), and then by colour. This leads to a large assortment of different boxes and bins outside the apartment building.
It’s easy to earn the wrath of the garbage police. Putting a clear glass bottle in the box for brown glass bottles? Wrath. Throwing out a bundle of newspapers that aren’t tied up with twine? Wrath. Throwing out plastic bottles that aren’t clean enough to use again or still have labels on them? Wrath and more wrath. With the wrath comes an element of public shaming as your neighbours can all see how poorly you sort your recycling.
Survival techniques for English teachers
My roommates and I came up with two strategies to make garbage day easier. The first option was to use the bins at the 7-11 across from our apartment as much as possible. Since most of our trash is packaging of food or drinks that we bought at 7-11, we did not feel very guilty about this.
Throwing away home garbage at convenience stores must be a fairly common practice, since most stores have a sign asking people not to dispose of their family garbage in the convenience store bins. Many English teachers “conveniently” miss this sign if it is displayed in Japanese only, but will obey English signs. The thought is that if the store made the effort get an English “don’t dump your family garbage here” sign, then the teachers should make the effort to dispose of their garbage properly (or find another convenience store).
Our other strategy was to send out Palmer with the garbage. My roommate Palmer is a 192cm (6 foot 3) bald Australian with big muscles who doesn’t like to wear shirts with sleeves. Whenever we had a difficult day with some questionable trash, Palmer would take it out, scowling and flexing at anyone who gave him a second look. The garbage police never said a word.
This strategy only works if you are large and can look intimidating. My other roommate Azeroth and I both look about as threatening as tax accountants, so we could not have pulled it off.
The best advice for people living in Japan is to learn the local rules and plan ahead for garbage day. Putting forth a good effort on garbage day will make a good impression on your neighbours, and will reduce the stress of last minute sorting or getting chewed out by the garbage police.
For a much better written article about garbage disposal in Japan with lots of pictures, check out “Getting Down and Dirty with Japan’s Garbage” by Verity Lane.