This Japanese Town Aims to Produce No Trash by 2020

Screen capture. YouTube

Touted by many as the world's "first zero-waste town," Kamikatsu has an impressive waste management program from which the rest of the world could learn a lot.

If you think sorting recycling from trash is a hassle, then try sorting all of that recycling into 34 separate categories. That is what residents of Kamikatsu, Japan, must do. The town in southern Japan has a rigorous waste-management program that recycles or composts 80 percent of the waste produced by its 1,700 residents. The remaining 20 percent goes to landfill, although Kamikatsu hopes to eliminate that amount entirely by 2020.

Prior to introducing its intensive recycling program, Kamikatsu relied on open incineration to deal with the growing amount of non-biodegradable (and primarily plastic) trash generated by increasing consumerism. This created environmental and health concerns that officials chose to address by placing more of the responsibility for waste on the town’s residents.

There are no recycling trucks in the town; instead, residents must take their recycling to a facility where it is sorted into the 34 categories. They are expected to wash, sort, and separate ahead of time. Detailed signs explain where everything goes and describe what the items will be turned into and how much that process can cost or earn the community. Staff ensures that residents follow the rules.

In a video created by Seeker Stories, resident Hatsue Katayama describes the experience: “If you get used to it, it becomes normal. Now I don’t think about it. It’s become natural to separate the trash correctly.”

The town has a "circular" shop where people can donate or take used items for free, which encourages reuse. There’s also a factory where local women make products out of discarded items. Kimonos, clothes, and flags are turned into teddy bears, bags, sweaters, and more.

The cost of waste management has been cut to one-third of what it was when everything was incinerated, which should be incentive for other towns to consider implementing the same thing.

Kamikatsu’s efforts are laudable, particularly in a world where recycling has not yet become mainstream, nor do many people stop to think about the amount of trash they generate daily. It’s important, however, to realize that recycling is also a form of trash, so it’s not entirely correct to refer to the town as "zero waste."

As I wrote in another post about recycling for TreeHugger:

“Recycling can be a cop-out for consumers, making us feel justified about buying stuff in excessive packaging. The sad reality is that many of the things we toss in the recycling never get recycled because they disappear from the recycling stream and are never accounted for. And plastic is never recycled; it’s always downcycled into a lesser form, until eventually it ends up in landfills.”

Kamikatsu proves that it’s possible to create alternative models, but those models need to go beyond recycling to the actual elimination of trash and recyclable items altogether if we ever hope to live sustainably.