Impact Journalism Day 2016

A Town Full of Garbage Ideas

Residents of Kamikatsu recycle nearly 80 percent of their waste. The Japanese town is happy to share its secrets.

Zero Waste Academy director Akira Sakano working at the garbage station in Kamikatsu.
Yu Fujinami/Asahi Shimbun

The small mountainous town of Kamikatsu, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, has proved so effective at recycling that the annual number of visitors seeking waste-reduction advice exceeds its population.

Residents and businesses have all joined the effort to achieve the town’s goal of “zero waste” by 2020. That goal was announced in 2003, following concerns of dioxin poisoning. So far, the town of 1,700 has progressed steadily toward the target. In 2014, Kamikatsu achieved a recycling rate of 77.2 percent – nearly quadruple the national average of 20.6 percent.

Around 2,500 annual visitors from within and outside Japan come to the town seeking tips on how to reduce garbage.

Kamikatsu’s recycling project centers on its only garbage collection site, known as “Gomi Station” (garbage station), which is operated by a town-commissioned nonprofit called Zero Waste Academy.

Residents take their household waste to the station, which is open from 7:30 A.M. to 2 P.M. daily (except for year-end holidays).

Plastic boxes at the facility come with signs showing the separation categories, such as aluminum cans, steel cans, plastic bottle caps and metal caps. The signs also indicate what the trash will be recycled into, as well as the selling price to dealers. For example, disposable chopsticks will be recycled into materials for paper, and aluminum cans will be sold for 155 yen ($1.45) a kilogram.

60 types of trash

The Kamikatsu government’s guidelines instruct households to separate litter into 34 categories. At the garbage station itself, there are about 60 categories.

With help from staff at the site, Toshihide Toge, 37, takes about 20 minutes to separate the two-months-worth of waste he has driven in by truck. “I’m grateful because they help me when I’m at a loss,” he says.

Burnable waste that can’t be recycled is handed over to dealers in Tokushima, the prefectural capital, for incineration.

Each household in Kamikatsu disposes of food scraps with a device bought with town government subsidies.

The catalyst for the town’s commitment to recycling came after it bought a small incinerator in 1998. The incinerator was shut down only two years later, because the exhaust fumes didn’t clear the standards under the law controlling dioxin emissions.

Town officials urged residents to sort their rubbish for recycling to reduce the amount of waste for incineration or disposal.

In 1997, the town had nine waste-separation categories. The number jumped to 34 in 2002. The following year, Mayor Kazuichi Kasamatsu proposed the zero-waste target, giving residents a numerical goal. The town assembly approved his proposal.

In 1998, the town produced 137 tons of waste for incineration. In 2003, the year the zero-waste goal was announced, the amount was 62 tons. It has since remained around 60 tons annually.

It has been a widespread effort. Rather than throw away unneeded daily items, residents look for new owners.

The Kurukuru Shop, which stands adjacent to the garbage station, offers free secondhand furniture, clothes, tableware and other items that are brought in by locals. People from out of town can also take these goods home.

About 10 tons of used articles were taken to the shop in 2014, and about 9.7 tons found new owners.

Is your napkin really necessary?

The town also tries to avoid using things that require disposal later. Cafe Polestar, for instance, doesn’t provide paper napkins on its tables; receipts are only provided to customers who request them; and restaurant employees use their own shopping bags when they buy ingredients for dishes served at the eatery.

“We were initially reluctant to deviate from services that are taken for granted at other establishments,” says restaurant manager Takuya Matsumoto, 31. “But we would like our customers to know that this is also part of our appeal.”

Akira Sakano, director of the Zero Waste Academy, is ready to move to the next stage, because she believes residents’ endeavors have plateaued.

“We don’t want to just separate garbage in a large number of categories. We also want to reduce the amount produced in the first place,” says Sakano, 27.

One way to achieve this, she says, is working with businesses to change conventional methods of packaging on products.

Waste from agricultural supplies can be curbed if recyclable substances replace the commonly used materials of vinyl chloride and rubber, she believes.

She also notes that some outside officials attribute Kamikatsu’s success to its small population, enabling the easy spread of efforts to save the environment.

Sakano recommends that residents swap unwanted goods among themselves and set up waste stations at several sites to match the size of their communities.

“All communities can devise their own zero-waste projects by taking into account their circumstances,” says Sakano. “We are ready to share our knowledge as well as the ways and means.”

This article first appeared in the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun.