In early October I returned to Japan, for the third time. This trip was three weeks long. [Ideally, it should have been three months or three years]. I marvel at the small things in Japanese culture. Some are very apparent; others take me a while to notice, but this slowly unfurling personal awareness is a delightful treat.
Things that are instantly apparent are almost paradoxical. There is, for example, no litter in public spaces … but there are also no bins. There might be several tucked away in corners of the larger train stations, but they must be hunted down. They lurk beside the ranks of lockers, or behind smoking rooms or in convenience stores; but never in clear sight.
Second, Japan revels in plastic. This is curious, given the proclivity for many food gift purchases to be exquisitely and expertly wrapped in beautifully patterned paper/s. However, everything else is in plastic bags, plastic containers, plastic food packaging, plastic anything packaging. Some items are encased in plastic three of four times. The convenient madness of individually plastic-wrapped bananas, apples and eggplants is rife [see Vice‘s article on it here].
Domestic waste (in Tokyo at least) can be divided into recyclable PET bottles, aluminium cans or glass bottles … and everything else. This means other packaging plastics are not recycled in a conventional sense. Instead, all of the other mixed waste (including food) is incinerated. Japan has huge incinerators in every major city. In Tokyo in 2015, roughly 8,000 tons per day of household waste was generated by about nine million people and put out for disposal, collected and then immediately transported to one of 21 factory-size waste incineration plants located around the city. The waste is incinerated at over 800° C: this not only reduces the volume to 5%, but also the amount of dioxin gases produced by incineration. Much of the sandy or ashy slag can be incorporated in asphalt, bricks and concrete. Multiple filters and processes are used to prevent harmful substances and gases (such as particulates and sulphur oxide) from being emitted from the facilities. Chimneys of waste incineration plants emit vapour — not smoke — and these are monitored constantly.
Tokyo’s Toshima Incineration Plant, for example, consumes 300 tons of garbage a day, turning it into electricity, hot water and a form of recyclable sand. Over 180,000 people frequent this plant annually, to swim and exercise in the plant’s fitness centre and pool, and to use the health clinic for the elderly.
Many of Japan’s incinerators are architecturally significant. Architect Yoshio Taniguchi [designer of the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York] designed the very beautiful Hiroshima City Naka Incineration Plant, which he calls “my museum of garbage”.
Sorting trash is a serious civic responsibility in some places. In the eastern Japanese town of Kamikatsu, residents compost all food waste and sort other waste into 34 different bins for recycling. The aim is for a zero-waste town. In Tokyo, I saw no overflowing bins on the streets and I was told many citizens even rinse their household waste, item by item, before carefully sorting it. On long-distance buses and trains, each seat is provided with a small plastic bag and passengers take home all of their rubbish. Trucks and taxis are spotless; neighbours monitor each others’ waste to ensure it is correctly sorted; children clean their own schoolrooms and shop employees, for example, take responsibility for cleaning their respective footpaths. It’s a system which works.
But the individually wrapped bananas in the supermarkets? I found these particularly jarring, particularly given the recent move in many Australian supermarkets to do the same.