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Sorting the rubbish 34 ways

A Japanese town’s strict recycling regime looks to a future free of incinerators and landfills. Justin McCurry reports on Kamikatsu’s quest for zero waste by 2020.

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It was not that long ago that life in Kamikatsu revolved around the state of the rice crop and the number of tourists arriving to soak in the restorative waters of the local hot spring. Now the town, in the densely wooded mountains of Shikoku island in south-west Japan, has a new obsession: rubbish.

Since 2003, Kamikatsu's 2,000 residents have been part of a so-far unheralded ecological experiment that, if successful, could force rubbish collectors across the country to look for new jobs.

Urban Japanese householders, who baulk at having to divide rubbish into flammable and inflammable items, bottles and cans, should spare a thought for their counterparts in Kamikatsu. Here, household waste must be separated into no fewer than 34 categories before being taken to a recycling centre where volunteers administer firm, but polite, reprimands to anyone who forgets to remove the lid from a plastic bottle or to rinse out an empty beer can.

At stake is Kamikatsu's quest to end its dependence on incineration and landfill by 2020 and claim the title of Japan's first zero-waste community.

An hour's drive from the nearest city and about 600 kilometres from Tokyo, the town was forced to change the way it managed its waste in 2000, when strict new regulations on dioxin emissions forced Kamikatsu to shut down its two incinerators.

"We were no longer able to burn our rubbish, so we thought the best policy was not to produce any in the first place," said Sonoe Fujii of the town's Zero Waste Academy, a non-profit organisation that oversees the scheme.

Despite initial opposition, the zero-waste declaration, passed by the village assembly in 2003, has spawned an unlikely army of eco-warriors.

When Kikue Nii is not tending her impressive allotment or catching fish from the river at the bottom of her garden, she is up to her elbows in garbage.

"At first it was very hard work," said the 65-year-old woman, as she emptied another bowl of vegetable peelings into the electric garbage-disposal unit next to her back door. In the corner of her garden, more kitchen waste sat in a conventional composter, waiting to help nurture a new supply of tomatoes and spring onions.

"I was working when the scheme started and found myself spending my lunch break dealing with our rubbish," she said. "It took ages to sort everything into different types. But it comes naturally now."

However, she draws the line at her husband's empty beer cans: "They are his responsibility," she said.

That Nii and her neighbours struggled in the early days of the zero-waste campaign is understandable, given the daunting, myriad rules.

Glass bottles must be relieved of their caps and sorted by colour. Plastic bottles for soy sauce and cooking oil must be kept separate from PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) bottles that once contained mineral water and green tea.

All bottles, cans and even plastic food wrappers must be washed thoroughly; newspapers and magazines have to be piled into neat bundles tied with a twine made from recycled milk cartons.

Any waste that is not composted is taken to the zero-waste centre. Early one recent morning, a trickle of cars turned into a deluge as residents arrived at the centre to drop off their rubbish on the way to work. The site can accommodate a dizzying array of items -- from bottles, cans and newspapers to crockery, batteries, nappies, cigarette lighters, ballpoint pens and an improbably large number of broken mirrors.

Anything in good enough condition to be reused ends up at the Kuru Kuru recycling store, where residents may drop off or take home whatever they like, free of charge. [Since the shop opened two years ago, town residents have offloaded 1.7 tons of unwanted items, mainly clothes and ornaments, and taken home 1.2 tons.]

All but a few categories of rubbish are recycled. Wooden chopsticks are pulped and made into paper, and cooking oil reappears in fertiliser. But for other items, such as shoes, futons and carpets, the only option remains incineration. Glass and ceramics and light bulbs are buried in landfills, while batteries have to be shipped hundreds of kilometres to a recycling plant on the northern island of Hokkaido.

The cost of disposing of items that can’t be recycled has dropped. In 2004, the town spent almost 40 million yen (US$370,000) on waste disposal and recycling; this had fallen to just under 18 million yen (US$166,000) two years later.

Critics point out that some of the composters use electricity and that most residents of Kamikatsu, which is spread out over an area that ranges from 100 metres to 800 metres above sea level, have no choice but to take their rubbish to the zero-waste centre by car.

"We're still some way from reaching our zero-waste goal, but the difference is amazing compared with a few years ago," said Yasuo Goto, a 75-year-old retired farmer who works part-time as a caretaker at the centre.

His optimism is supported by data showing that Kamikatsu's recycling rate has soared from 55% a decade ago to around 80% today. Five years after the scheme's inception, 98% of the population uses home composters, which, with government subsidies, cost a modest 3,000 yen (US$28) each.

"I can't say with absolute confidence that we will reach the target, but we're doing our best to make it happen," said Fujii.

To stand any chance of reaching its 2020 goal, the greenest citizens still have a public relations battle to win. Local reaction was mixed when the town first mooted the idea of spearheading Japan's zero-waste movement. There were complaints that the regular cycle of sorting, washing and disposing of rubbish would prove too much for the elderly population.

A recent poll showed that 40% of residents were still unhappy about at least one aspect of the zero-waste policy. "We still have opponents, particularly because almost everything has to be washed," Fujii said. "All we can do is talk to the doubters and explain why what we're doing is so important. I think consciousness is growing that this is a good thing; that it's not just the right thing to do, but the only thing to do."



Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008

Homepage photo by Timothy


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发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Isn't that too much cost?

Washing needs water, transporting the garbage uses gas, and on top of that there are labor costs. Isn't the cost too much?

This comment was translated by Lijin Zeng.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



An amazing comment

I am stunned by Comment Number 1.
"Isn't the cost too much?"
What should we do, then? Continue to waste materials and resources, and continue to burn rubbish, or throw it into big holes in the earth?
I'm really interested in what others think about to deal with our mountains of waste.
-- Matty

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




(本评论由Lijin Zeng翻译)

Depends on the price

Yes it would take a lot of resources to make a zero-waste community, including valuable water to clean everything.

In terms of yen, the cost is not very high, because water is not very expensive and the program is run by a non-profit organization, so labor costs are free. The only expensive part, then, is fuel.

In terms of overall resources, the effort should be worthwhile. It takes a minimal amount of resources to be a zero-waste community (some water, gas, and time) whereas it takes a vast amount of resources to be a wasteful community (lots of water, much more gas, more time, space for landfills, and many other resources!)
--Crystal, US

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Re: Comment 2

Mentioning their high costs does not necessarily mean to say no to the sorting ways. What I am trying to say is, the high costs will compromise the possible popularity of recycling the waste. That means we need to come up with ways to reduce these costs.

(This comment was translated by Zheng Shen.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


非常赞成零垃圾的想法, 相信也是未来为保护环境人类必须接受的做法.
希望大家从我做起, 一起行动起来!

---- Xin Duan REN

All the people realizing crux of the matter

I’m strongly in favour of zero-waste declaration, I believe we have to take it as a future way of protecting the environment. Hope everybody will apply that method starting from themselves, let’s take an action together!
Xin Duan REN
(This comment was translated by Katarzyna Wachowska.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Give the environment the treatment

Rubbish, to the core, is disposable once used. So why don't dispose of it by sorting. Any org. or gov. with this intention could contact Mr. Xu Xianrong at [email protected] or on 15026855617 and 13764861618.

This comment was translated by Ming Li


[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



在www.storyofstuff.com,通过一个有趣的卡通片,你可以了解到这一转变的必要性。你也可以在我的联合国网站(http://www.climateneutral.unep.org/cnn_members.aspx?m=195)上,看到如何将之付诸实践。在“climate briefing”中介绍了如何解决垃圾问题和气候问题。作为回报,这种新的经济理念能过帮助每一个国家,迈向繁荣的经济。
James Greyson
本评论由Si Meng翻译。

every town could be zero waste

Most places are dependent on disposal to land or air because it's the cheapest and easiest option. However this neglects that everything thrown away needs to be replaced with vast costs and effort in new materials, energy water, pollution, etc. So the answer is to switch from making waste everywhere to making new resources instead.

You can see the need for this switch in a fun cartoon, www.storyofstuff.com. You can see how to make it happen in practice with new economics on my UN site http://www.climateneutral.unep.org/cnn_members.aspx?m=195. The 'climate briefing' shows how to fix both waste and climate issues. As a bonus this new economics would help every country towards economic recovery.
James Greyson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

Stop incineration

Incineration is the dead of earth! And zero waste, like in nature, is the future. Here are some helpful informations about kryo- recycling and biological waste treatment:

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Inadequate sorting

Failing to sort the rubbish adequately is the fatal crux of China’s waste problems.An excerpt from Southern Weekly says “Leftovers, vegetables, peel and all kinds of household garbage mix together due to lack of sorting. The high moisture content makes a direct impact on caloric value. As a result only eight hundred calorie is left when burnt. Merely two hundred and thirty KWh is generated after the combustion of one ton of household garbage. In the countries that have succeed in waste sorting, more than three thousand calorie can be produced by burning rubbish and about one thousand KWh electricity would be produced from a ton of rubbish, which is three times more than the unsorted version.” This comment was translated by Mingzhu Yao