Friday, July 18, 2008
What your trash says about you
People who don't live in Japan may wonder why every foreigner talks about trash. We talk about it because it is a BIG DEAL. It's not a big deal because it's so complicated, though it certainly can be, but because punishment for getting it wrong ranges from having your hand slapped with a sticker (as above) for sorting incorrectly to being harassed right out of your apartment by self-appointed garbage Nazi neighbors. People take trash seriously so you must do so as well.
Several months ago, the ward we live in changed their trash policies. Before this change, the only trash that was picked up by the local government was classified as "burnable", "nonburnable" and recyclable cardboard, cans and glass. Those who were inclined to recycle more (i.e., me) had to sort trash of their own volition and cart it off to a store that happened to offer bins for other sorts of trash. When the regulations were changed, I was happy because I no longer had to schlep PET bottles, milk cartons, and Styrofoam food trays to the local market for recycling. The change allowed me to not only put these items out for recycling with regular trash, but to also add paper to the list of things I could recycle.
Unfortunately, we misunderstood what fell under the heading of "burnable" trash and put out a bag of items we thought could not be burned during one of my closet clearings. Apparently, we weren't the only ones who didn't quite comprehend because our neighbors also had these red stickers on their trash on the day that we got ours. The only difference was that we dragged our bag of incorrectly sorted trash back into the apartment until the proper day for its removal and our neighbors just left their bags sit outside for the next 4 days. This bears out the general notion that Japanese people mainly care about cleanliness in spaces they inhabit and don't care about other spaces (something which is confirmed time and again).
Among the items that were in that bag were some hard plastic items like old computer components. A good example of the type of item in it was an old translucent orange plastic USB ten-key pad which I used to use with my tangerine iBook. I was under the impression that such items were not incinerated because they produced toxic chemicals when burned. Apparently, I was wrong. We have a flyer which explains things, but it isn't clear enough and can be confusing. For instance, (clear) drinking glasses are nonburnable trash, but jars and bottles are recyclable despite the fact that the glass appears to be identical.
Since our early slip-up, we haven't made any mistakes with sorting our trash, but a lot of people around the neighborhood are still having problems. Every week, I see trash bags left on the streets and in front of homes with stickers on them telling them they've done it wrong. The other tenants in our building often continue to either make such mistakes or are sufficiently indifferent to properly handling their trash that they toss things in willy-nilly. The biggest point on which they are guilty of laziness is dealing with what is called "pura" (プラ) sorts of trash. I'm not exactly sure what makes something fall under this classification as a wide variety of items are included, but it is, essentially, plastic trash of a certain sort which can be recycled. The umbrella of pura is very wide so most types of plastic that fall in this category have a special mark to guide people in doing proper sorting.
The main hassle of sorting trash aside from the fact that it requires one to maintain five or more separate containers ("pura", paper, burnable, nonburnable, glass, cans, PET) is that it becomes increasingly troublesome to process your trash. The idea of anything being "disposable" goes out the window when you have to wash, dry, crush, and cut up all your trash. If I have some take out curry, for instance, I don't just eat my food and toss the packaging. I eat the food and have to wash the containers as if they were dishes and recycle them. The same goes for paper. You don't just chuck your milk carton in the bin when the milk is done. You wash it, dry it, cut it so it lies flat and keep it with other paper recyclables.
As one might imagine, this makes you very aware of how much waste you produce and of what type. In particular, I can't help but notice that the bag of "pura" (recyclable plastic) trash that my CH and I put out every week is much larger than most of our neighbors. My CH and I are not particularly wasteful people though. We very rarely eat instant or take away food that comes in plastic one-serving containers. Most of our "pura" trash consists of unavoidable food trays and plastic wrap from purchasing meat, vegetables, eggs, and fruit.
After puzzling the discrepancy, I realized that we had more of this sort of trash because I make most of our food at home. Most of our neighbors are younger than us and most likely eat out for most of their meals so whatever trash they produce is tossed away somewhere else. It's not that we are more wasteful, but rather that all our trash is centralized.
In a similar vein, I've noticed that I can tell how healthily my CH and I are eating by the volume of organic trash we produce. While we don't have to separate organic waste from other burnable trash, I have done so as a matter of course for many years because it's best to keep it isolated in a closed container to control garbage odors. I'm sure that it also makes it easier for the authorities that compost trash to separate our tiny bit of it out as it's all food scraps. If we're consuming lots of fruit and vegetables, this bin can get pretty full of things like corn cobs, avocado pits and peels, banana peels, and apple cores. In the summer, it's a most unpleasant bucket to open up and add things to, even when it's emptied every 3 or 4 days (when burnable trash is collected).
Sometimes I think about how we could reduce the volume of trash we produce but I almost always reach the conclusion that the delivery system for food in Japan makes it nearly impossible. When the stores mainly offer food shrink-wrapped and on Styrofoam trays, we have little choice but to buy it in this wasteful manner. Similarly, there is no way to purchase milk of any kind except in cardboard containers. Even most fruit that is not trapped behind a wall of plastic wrap and resting on a tray comes with a little foam mesh jacket to protect it from bruising.
It seems to me that, if people are going to get serious about waste reduction, one of the big things that needs to change is the delivery method for goods. There's a bottled water machine at one of the local markets and people refill the same jug there again and again. If such machines could distribute milk, juice, etc., it would be a step in the right direction. An easier step, of course, would be to stop using trays to display food so that it is flat and attractive. However, I'm not holding my breath, especially not in Japan where appearance plays such a big part in consumer decisions.
As an aside, I will mention that buying meat at the local butcher shop is more expensive, but they don't use trays and provide less wasteful packaging. I used to buy meat there, but there was a stretch of time when they refused to sell me what I wanted four times in a row. I don't know why they did this, but I stopped going there after being refused so many times. And, no, I was never rude to them or did anything incorrect. I'd just make a request and they said they could not fill it. I can only assume they did not want my business anymore or would prefer I not patronize their shop for what to me was an obvious reason.