Tokyo

An Ant in Tokyo: The recycling sort

Feeling brave in Tokyo? Perhaps you want to try chowing down on fugu? Or standing toe-to-toe with a sumo? Or maybe just doing a spot of recycling.

It should be no surprise that the place that spawned a New York Times best-seller dedicated to the art of tidying up should have an astonishingly elaborate system for sorting its garbage. Not content with broad categories of recycling, Japan asks people to sift categories of waste into an elaborate dichotomy that requires a diligent household to have up to a dozen piles, lest the juice cartons contaminate the miso boxes, or the plastic bento trays interfere with the empty drink bottles.

Sorting through garbage has become part of the Japanese experience. Where many other parts of the world cluster recyclable things together when they leave the home, and only sort things downstream, Japan has opted to put the burden firmly on the shoulders of individuals.

Embassy recycling bins
It’s enough to trigger OCD.

The information sheet issued by the ward administration in our part of Tokyo does a heroic job of explaining the different categories into which trash must be sorted.

So what are the Dirty Dozen? There’s glass, cans, plastic bottles, other plastic, newspaper, cardboard, drink cartons, books and magazines, batteries, rags – and then whatever doesn’t fit into these categories is separated into burnable or non-burnable. Got all that?

Recycling instructions
Apparently avoiding garbage duty is why some Japanese become ascetic.

Adding to the complexity is the schedule of garbage collection, in which different categories are collected on different days, sometimes with differing frequency. It is little wonder that one of the objections some locals have to Airbnb leases in their neighbourhood is that non-locals will not follow the garbage disposal rules properly.

And things don’t get much easier when you leave the house. Public bins are scarce in parks and at railway stations, so people are expected to carry their garbage until they find a suitable spot to dispose it, or a sufficiently discreet enough spot that they can leave it without fear of discovery.

When you do finally find a recycling station, they look a bit like this:

School recycling bins
Would you risk the humiliation of getting this one wrong?

Self-serve restaurants expect patrons to sort out their leftovers in garbage at elaborate disposal stations, prompting each patron to form a snap judgement about the combustibility of each item on their tray, haunted by the social opprobrium that may be directed their way should they make a bad call.

The success of the Japanese system relies on a strong popular willingness to comply. Sorting garbage is tricky, messy and time-consuming. It relies not only on most people knowing the rules – which itself depends on good communications and high rates of literacy – but also on caring about the rules.

An ingrained commitment to rules and confidence in the fairness of the system is needed to achieve such a high rate of compliance, all the more so when the act of sorting garbage is basically private, involving only the sacred bond between trash-chucker and garbo.

In public places, people in many parts of the world have come to expect an abundance of easily accessible bins. Take those bins away, or make them complex to use, and some people believe they have been relieved of their obligation to clean up after themselves.

And yet, in Japan it works: the streets are spotlessly clean, non-compliance is rare and recycled materials are commonplace. In fact, it has helped turn Japan into a global leader in recycling strategy, prompting others around the world to consider if they can take a leaf from Japan’s book.

It is tricky to find good data on how countries compare in their trash habits, but some World Bank numbers look pretty good for Japan. Japan generates 1.71 kilos of municipal solid waste per person per day, less than most other developed countries including Australia (2.23 kilos), Germany (2.11 kilos) and the United States (2.58 kilos). And in sending just 3 per cent of its total waste to landfills, it is one of the lowest the world.

Curiously, 74 per cent of its total waste is reportedly used in energy production. There’s an excellent explainer on that – and more – over at Tofugu:

If you hear the words “fluidized bed” in relation to Japan, you might think you’re reading an article about Love Hotels. Sorry to disappoint, but at least fluidized bed combustion is pretty exciting. It is a very efficient way of burning materials that don’t normally burn easily. Your carefully sorted rubbish will be suspended in a hot, bubbling bed of ash and other particulates as jets of air are blown through it. Apparently the “fast and intimate mixing of gas and solids promotes rapid heat transfer and chemical reactions within the bed.” Who ever said garbage disposal wasn’t sexy?

All joking aside, this thermal treatment of municipal solid waste does have some advantages over other forms of incineration. It is cheaper, takes up less space, and produces fewer nitrogen oxides and less sulphur dioxide. One of them was even built near Shibuya station in 2001. It can also be used as part of a Waste to Energy system, using the resultant heat to create power.

What has promoted Japan to take such a zealous approach to recycling? As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of recycling – or something like that. A report from the Institution of Environmental Sciences pinpointed three reasons why Japan has become a leader:

  • High population density and limited landfill space;
  • Very limited domestic metal and mineral resources, making remanufacturing and recycling attractive;
  • A business culture emphasising collaboration, leading to a comprehensive approach, both to measurement and to action.

There is one piece of the puzzle, though, that Japan has largely ignored: reducing consumption.

Japan has fetishised packaging on consumer products to such an extent that even the simplest of products has an elaborate unboxing process that would make the most narcissistic YouTuber salivate.

Take these two apples, for sale recently at a Tokyo supermarket. The apples themselves – robust fruit that could probably fend for themselves pretty well – were resting in pink beanies, sitting on a paper tray, surrounded in a plastic wrap and then labelled, as if their apple-ness was not immediately apparent.

Japan apples
Exhibit A in the case for overpackaging.

It seems that the packaging here serves far more of a symbolic, rather than practical, function: the packaging is connoting the pristineness of the product, its separation from the wild, untamed (and, yes, dirty) natural world from which it is sourced. In other contexts, the packaging acts as a symbol of thoughtfulness, of a gift or of effortless affluence.

Take these well-packaged items to the cash register and you will almost always be offered a plastic bag in which to place them. Bring your own bag to the counter, or seek to go bag-free, and you will get the same quizzical look from the attendant as if you had just rocked up with a parrot perched upon your shoulder, a look that says “That’s not how we do things around here.”

At first glance it seems odd for a culture that takes such pride in its recycling to have so few qualms about superfluous consumption and packaging. But perhaps the recycling is used to excuse the wasteful packaging, allowing people to continue to accept layer upon layer by giving them the psychological comfort that the waste will eventually be recycled. In that way, the elaborate recycling rituals may act as an enabler for wasteful behaviour among people who just cannot bear to give it up.

This is not to say that winding back the recycling effort would force a rethink of packaging habits. It seems these excessive packaging habits are largely ingrained and will not change easily. An interesting parallel can be seen in the efforts to reduce electricity consumption in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, which put Japan’s nuclear power industry offline. For the summer that followed, offices switched off their air conditioning, shopping malls switched off their escalators and izakayas switched off their neon, cutting demand by up to 20 per cent in some places. Did this newfound austerity last? By the time I visited in the summer of 2012, things had pretty much returned to normal and have stayed that way. Some habits are too hard to break.

Japan’s commitment to recycling is impressive, and sets a benchmark for the rest of the world. Couple that with reduced consumption, though, and the results could be even better.

Keen for more trivia on trash in Japan? Check out this excellent collection.

Tokyo

An Ant in Tokyo

One week from now I’ll be wandering amid the dappled sunlight of cherry blossoms, resting elegantly on a tatami as I sip green tea, watching a bead of sweat trickle down the thigh of a sumo and admiring the floral outfits of a geisha as she wanders past.

Who am I kidding? I’ll be more likely dodging Typhoon Lan, getting my ribs crushed on a peak-hour subway train and poking my chopsticks suspiciously at a glutinous grey mass in a cardboard box.

Or perhaps it will be a bit of both.

Anyhow, the point is that next Sunday I am moving to Japan with my wife, a diplomat henceforth known as The Diplomat, and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, henceforth known as Kawaii. Japan has always held plenty of mystique for me, thanks to the swirling mix of exotic Orientalism coupled with the familiar comforts of the developed world. And also Astro Boy.

My primary mission in Japan is to be a Hands-On Dad to Kawaii while The Diplomat makes her mark professionally in a country she has admired since she lived there as a high school exchange student more than two decades ago.

Along the way I am hoping to discover the delights of Tokyo, and the rest of Japan, with my family. Fathers taking a major role in parenting are often described as Stay-at-Home Dads, however I plan to be anything but. Kawaii and I are going to be out and about so much checking out all that the city has to offer that home will be just one of many places we will visit. I’ll be a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – a tall white guy hanging around Tokyo with a female a generation younger than himself.

Not so long ago we bought Kawaii a book to introduce her to Japanese. My First Book of Japanese Words uses each letter of the alphabet to teach kids a new word.

What’s up first? A. Ari means ant, it says. So now I know that every time a Japanese person hears my name, their mental image will be of the smallest and most insignificant creature in the animal kingdom. The one that lives its life in the shadows of everything else. The one whose fate is to be either trodden on or ignored. Perhaps there’s a message in that.

Anyhow, while I have plenty of enthusiasm for life in Tokyo, I know I am beginning at something of a disadvantage.

For starters, my Japanese language skills are minimal. For decades my Japanese has been limited to tamago, teppanyaki and agedashi tofu, and even then I think I was screwing up the pronunciation. Knowing that our departure was looming, a few months back I started online learning via Rosetta Stone, a fine website and app that seeks to marinate your brain in language and hoping some of it sticks like terriyaki.

Rosetta Stone is a great tool, and I do intend to persist, but it does present some rather odd phrases (“the man is under the car”) ahead of the essentials (“where is the toilet?”). Many Japanese words, I have discovered, sound like the English version uttered by someone who got distracted part way through (“terebi” for “television”). Rosetta Stone has also left me with an exceedingly enthusiastic pronunciation, such is the excitement with which each word is presented. My pronunciations of the words for “dining room” and the number 26 have been known turn heads.

So it might be a while before I’m saying much useful in Japanese. Instead I’ll be making the most of my (rather brilliant) charade skills to make myself understood and seeking to read the body language of those around me to understand what the hell is going on. Along the way, though, I hope to learn a lot more of the language, and the sponge-like brain of Kawaii should pick up plenty as well. She might even learn more than I do, in which case she can be my pocket translator.

Then there’s my diet: I’m a vegetarian, and have been for 21 years, so it’s probably not just a phase. But the Japanese diet is very heavy with seafood, and my barely-there language skills (see above) might make it tricky for me to eat well, unless I stick to the safe options of Western-style chains and enormous mounds of rice. It may be that I’ll need to relax my vegetarianism, perhaps by getting some fish in my bowl, if only to ward off starvation. As for the culinary tastes of Kawaii, I am fortunate she’s the adventurous type willing to trying anything once. Though probably not this.

And finally there’s my health situation. Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, specifically a non-Hodgkin lymphoma that required four months of chemotherapy that left me tired and weak. I’ve been in remission for more than a year, and am feeling fantastic, but just as the onset of my initial disease was out of the blue (read all about it here), a recurrence might happen that way as well. Still, the medical care in Japan is excellent, and I gather you can get yourself some free radiotherapy just by sunbaking in certain parts of Fukushima.

But those problems are minor quibbles compared to the amazing opportunity that has come our way. There is so much to see, so much to do and so many social taboos to accidentally transgress. I can’t wait.

So please, join me on this adventure through Tokyo via this blog. Along the way you’ll hear stories about life as a Hands-On Dad in the bustling city that is home to about 38 million, including the good, the bad and the thoroughly confusing. I’ll also be writing about non-parenty stuff that catches my attention along the way, like politics, economics and why the hell Japanese people seem keen on getting frisky with robots.

No promises about what lies ahead, but it’s probably going to be a lot of fun.

Any last-minute advice on being a Hands-On Dad, life in Japan or dodging typhoons? Send it my way.

Pic credit: Time Out