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The Time I Decided to Fuck Recycling

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

This is a post I originally wrote back in 2006 when I was teaching English in a tiny fishing village in Japan. When I finally got back to America, I actually flat-out refused to recycle for a while. This should give you an idea why.


Let me tell you all about garbage. Garbage in Japan is an epic venture. I fully expect, after the crap I literally had to dig through today, that a full marching band should honor me as I put my bags out by the communal curb tomorrow morning.

To give you an idea of what trash entails, here’s an excerpt from a 2005 NY Times article:

YOKOHAMA, Japan – When this city recently doubled the number of garbage categories to 10, it handed residents a 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518 items. Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, “after the contents have been used up,” into “small metals” or plastics.Take out your tape measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse. Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks “are not torn, and the left and right sock match.” Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been “washed and dried.”

One young couple consistently failed to properly sort their trash. “Sorry! We’ll be careful!” they would say each time Mr. Kawai [a community volunteer] knocked on their door holding evidence of their transgressions.

At last, even Mr. Kawai – a small 77-year-old man with wispy white hair, an easy smile and a demeanor that can only be described as grandfatherly – could take no more.

“They were renting the apartment, so I asked the owner, ‘Well, would it be possible to have them move?’ ” Mr. Kawai said, recalling, with undisguised satisfaction, that the couple was evicted two months ago.

The village I live in has 14 different garbage categories.

First, there is burnable garbage. Apparently I’m supposed to know inherently what materials burn and which do not. Paper burns, right? But certain papers get put in the “paper” category, while others go into “burnable garbage.” How do you know which is which? Well, someone at the office showed me a 35-page book today, all in Japanese, that described specifically what items go in each category. Well, most items, at least. I looked at it for a few minutes before I thought my head would explode from all the unreadable kanji. I’m just going to have to wing it.

Plastic wrap goes in the non-burnable “pura” category. Certain plastic bottles are in the “PET” category. Some other plastics are apparently in the non-burnable “pu” category. I think aluminum is “pu,” too. Maybe? I have no idea. Milk cartons are to be carefully washed, dried, cut to be flat, and tied up with string. After that, I have no idea what you do with them. Maybe give them as gifts? Glass bottles are “glass,” simply enough, but they must be washed, dried, have any plastic caps entirely removed (those are “pura” after all), and labels, of course, are “paper.”

Large items are either “charged” (electricity once ran through them) or “large burnable objects.” Either of which you have to pay to throw away, which is probably why my apartment is full of random crap that is is broken, but not disposed of. Anything that can apparently hurt you (batteries fall into this category) are only collected every two months. Where you eventually put these hazardous objects, I have no idea. I’m going to have these damn dead batteries forever. In fact, most of these categories are only collected perhaps once a month.

Styrofoam plates are sorted separately from other styrofoam materials. Why? I may never know. Each category is collected on a different random day of the month, and that day changes each month. Unless you have a schedule, it’s a complete mystery as to when you can throw things away. And each category is put into a different type of bag, all of which you have to buy at the local store. FUN!

This is all rather complicated, so let’s run through an example, shall we? Today, I bought a bento lunch from the local market. It had rice, salmon, evil pickled god-knows-what, seaweed/bean salad, potato salad, fried fish of some sort, and soy sauce.

Once I was done eating what I wanted to eat (I avoided the seaweed and pickles like the plague), it was time to dispose of my trash.

Let’s see. The leftover food was “burnable,” so into that bag it went. The plastic packet the soy sauce came in had to be washed, dried, and put into “pura.” The chopsticks were wood, so “burnable,” but their wrapper was “paper.” The little plastic green grass thingies (you’ve seen them in take-out sushi, I bet) were “pura.” The cupcake wrapper the seaweed came in was “pu.” The plastic the lunch was wrapped in was “pura.” The box and lid itself were washed, dried, and also placed in “pura.”

So all in all, my one lunch (the box was about 8″ x 10″) went into 4 different trash cans. Wheeeeeeee!

And today, I was informed that paper towels were not, in fact, “paper.” They’re “burnable.” So all the nasty towels I used to clean the kitchen when I first arrived had to be located deep in the “paper” bag and moved to a different bin altogether. Disgusting.

However, I’m not the only one frustrated by such an elaborate system. After Yokohama increased its garbage categories, all-purpose public trash cans (no sorting required) were suddenly overflowing. So what did the city do? Why, naturally they removed all public bins. Everywhere. Many other areas in Japan have followed suit in order to encourage “domestic sorting.” Perhaps they should make this all into a party game or something. You know, get the whole family in on the action for a rousing round of “where the fuck does the coffee filter go?”

I remember when I went to Kyoto that a bicycle, once parked, would have its basket filled with garbage within minutes. Without trash cans, bike baskets became the next best thing.

“Friendly” neighbors have gone through my trash, then knocked on my door and plopped the refuse down, “helpfully” stating what I’ve done wrong with my sorting.  They then stay to watch me sort it correctly, tut-tutting when I place something in the incorrect bag. Each bag for each garbage category is a different color, and are very expensive to buy (it’s basically a trash tax), but the stinking mounds won’t be taken away unless they’re in the right bags.

I’ve also been warned to watch out for the crows. They perch by the garbage bins, and will even try and grab the bags from your hands in the morning.

This country is crazy.

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