Residents of Japanese Town Recycle Over 80 Percent of Their Trash, Strive for ‘Zero Waste’

March 18, 2021 Updated: March 18, 2021

The town of Kamikatsu on the Japanese island of Shikoku has become famous for a notable absence: trash. After almost two decades practicing a low-waste economy, some among the town’s roughly 1,500 inhabitants claim that change is possible.

Kamikatsu was doing almost no recycling in the 1990s. But a new law on carbon dioxide emissions forced the town’s two incinerators to close and its residents to rethink their approach to waste management.

“Kamikatsu is a rural area. People used to burn their household garbage at home or dump it in nature,” Akira Sakano, director of the Zero Waste Academy, told Great Big Story.

In 2003, the town created Japan’s first zero-waste declaration and a whole new set of guidelines for taking out the trash.

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Recycling categories are displayed at Kamikatsu waste recycling facility on July 2, 2020, in Kamikatsu, Japan. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

“In the past, I didn’t have to think about whether it was plastic, burnable garbage, or anything. I just burned it in the yard,” housewife Hachie Katayama explained. “Then, things changed, and the classification system was introduced. It was confusing.”

Forty-five separate categories of recyclable materials were devised, requiring all residents to learn the difference and separate accordingly. Little by little, the new system became a way of life, with the vast majority of waste bypassing incinerators and landfills.

Recyclables are taken to a volunteer-run collection center for processing. Reusable items are separated out and can be claimed by residents, free of charge, at the Kuru Kuru recycling store, reports The Guardian.

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Japanese resident Saeko Takahashi sorting trash into a box at her home in the town of Kamikatsu, Tokushima prefecture (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

“Our goal was to achieve zero waste by 2020, but we have encountered obstacles that involve stakeholders and regulations outside of our scope,” said Sakano, adding that items designed for single use, such as sanitary products, continue to be hard to segregate.

Even recyclables have to be properly washed, component parts separated, and labels removed before they will be accepted at the collection center. Yet, by 2016, Kamikatsu was recycling 81 percent of its waste. Residents are incentivized via a reward scheme, offering consumer points for refusing single-use plastics such as grocery bags, reports Green Queen.

The declaration has also improved the town’s congruity.

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Locals sorting household waste at Kamikatsu waste recycling facility on July 2, 2020, in Kamikatsu, Japan (Carl Court/Getty Images)

“The leftover food here goes into compost,” chef Taira Omotehara explained, “and that becomes fertiliser for the local farm, which grows the vegetables that we use here in the restaurant.”

“I gained a sense of taking care of things,” said shop owner Takuya Takeichi. “When I buy stocks, I only get them in cardboard boxes. We can reuse the clean cardboard to pack products, and so on.”

Kamikatsu’s formula for waste management is “strange but simple,” he ventured. “We may have more of a burden, but I think that we all gained richness in our minds.”

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A resident bringing disused household goods at a waste center in the town of Kamikatsu, Tokushima prefecture (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

Japan produces the world’s second largest quantity of plastic waste, after China. Absent a national waste management program, Kamikatsu’s low-waste model is evidence that change is possible. Other Japanese towns are catching on.

“As is often the case with social problems, we are powerless to effect change if we begin by saying it can’t be solved,” said Sakano. “By changing your mindset, the network of people involved grows, and so does the movement.”

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