Tokyo Despatches International

A touch of recycling, Japanese style

Legislation dating to the late 1990s mandates that every household must separate waste into burnable and non-burnable categories.

There are no trash cans in Tokyo. Or at least none when you really need to get rid of that increasingly insipid wad of chewing gum. One reason for this litter bin lacuna is that the Japanese are acutely conscious of waste and recycling. Rather than thoughtlessly chucking their wrappers and cans in the nearest dustbin, citizens are encouraged to take them home, to be subject to one of the world’s most elaborate recycling processes.

Legislation dating to the late 1990s mandates that every household must separate waste into burnable and non-burnable categories. But this is just the tip of the recycling iceberg. There is a vertiginous array of categories to further sort non-burnables into: plastic and PET (polyethylene terephthalate), cardboard and glass, spray cans and old cloth. But if you end up scratching your head over which category to sort an empty pizza box into, voluminous municipality-issued explanatory material is on hand. In Japan’s second-largest city, Yokohama, for instance, citizens are given a 27-page manual on how to sort about 500 different items (eg: lipstick is usually “burnable,” but an empty tube can go into “small metals”).

Businesses have to pay — based on weight and volume — for recyclables to be collected. Households must put out their trash for collection in local authority-designated clear bags. If the trash is sorted incorrectly, it is simply not collected. Instead, a large, red sticker explaining the error is put on the bags, leaving the miscreant crushed under the weight of neighbourhood social shame. A major problem with waste that most countries have is with household plastic, a lot of which either gets burned, causing enormous air pollution, or buried in landfills, leading to environmental contamination. But in Japan, over 70% of PET bottles, 77% of other plastic, and over 90% of aluminium cans are recycled.

In comparison, the U.S. rate for recycling PET and other kinds of plastic is just over 30% and only 67% for aluminium. In India, households rarely do even the most basic dry and wet waste segregation. Most garbage is burnt, or dumped in landfills where rag-pickers recycle a certain percentage. Recycled material in Japan is used in textiles, sheeting, industrial materials, toys, household items such as egg boxes, furniture and so on. There are many innovative examples. Toyota and other carmakers are designing cars that are made almost completely of recyclable materials. Tokyo’s Haneda Airport is built on an artificial island made of garbage. The Japan Denture Recycle Association, a one-man initiative, recycles the metal from donated dentures, with the proceeds going to UNICEF.

From mobiles to medals

And now, even the Olympic Games are going to get a touch of recycling, Japanese style. Tokyo will host the 2020 Games, and from next month, collection boxes are going up all over the city for residents to donate old mobile phones, computers and small household appliances. The idea is to collect enough metal to make all 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals with recycled materials.

Discarded consumer electronics like smartphones and tablets contain small amounts of precious and rare earth metals, including platinum, palladium, gold, silver, lithium, cobalt and nickel. The Tokyo Games organising committee says it hopes to accumulate as much as eight tonnes of metal, including 40 kg of gold, 2,920 kg of silver and 2,994 kg of bronze.

The Tokyo Olympics sports director, Koji Murofushi, told media that the project would allow all Japanese to take part in creating the medals that will be hung around athletes’ necks: a truly Olympic upcycling effort.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 12:07:52 PM |

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