Tour Japan's Famously Trash-Free Town

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The functional heart of Kamikatsu's globally envied waste is located at the Hibigaya station, a recyclables-sorting facility operated by the Zero Waste Academy. (Photo: Great Big Story/YouTube)

Since 2003, Kamikatsu, a small village located on Japan's Shikoku Island, has been on a most admirable mission: to produce zero waste by the year 2020. Not a single piece of refuse will be sent to rural landfills or trash incinerators, which, once upon a time, was the norm in this rural stretch of Tokushima Prefecture. And so far, the village’s roughly 1,500 residents have proven themselves to be up for the task, reaching a recycling rate of 80 percent for non-organic waste compared to the national Japanese average of 20 percent.

As on full display in a new short video doc from Great Big Story, the epicenter of Kamikatsu’s first-rate waste-curbing activities is Hibigaya waste collection station, a bustling refuse-centered community hub of sorts where residents haul their recyclables for sorting into an astonishing 45 different categories. That's right ... not the to-be-expected three or four bins but 45 labeled receptacles for every sort of recyclable waste possible.

For unwanted and unused household items — think small appliances, tools, toys and the like — that still have some life in them, Hibigaya station, which is operated by the nonprofit Zero Waste Academy, also boasts an on-site freecycling shop where villagers can leave or take things as they wish. And worth noting: there are no garbage collection trucks in town.

Hibigaya waste station, Kamikatsu, Japan
Where the magic happens: Hibigaya waste station is the center of activity in a rural Japanese town that's main claim to fame is recycling. (Photo: Great Big Story/YouTube)

45 degrees of separation

Not surprisingly, it took a while for villagers — Kamikatsu's population is both aging and shrinking, a "serious social issue" identified by the World Economic Forum — to warm up to such an aggressive and detail-laden waste diversion scheme. The day-to-day sorting isn’t any less laborious or time-intensive than it was in 2003 when Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Declaration was first introduced. But once villagers eventually got into the swing of things, there was no looking back.

The World Economic Forum offers an overview of how the village handled its waste stream not all that long ago:

Once the Japanese economy changed and consumption of packaged, disposable goods was widespread, residents set up a landfill and open incineration space in the town. Everyone brought their rubbish, whatever it was, to the burning hole; a practice that continued until the late 1990s.
However, the town was under strong pressure from the national government to stop burning rubbish on an open fire and start using an incinerator. So the town built one. However, the model was soon banned following health concerns about the dioxins it produced. Not only did the town lose out by building a useless incinerator, but it lost money by having to pay large sums to use the facilities of a nearby town.

When Kamikatsu first began recycling its waste, there were nine categories of waste separation. Within a short time, it grew to 34 categories, a figure that stuck around for a good while until recently when the number jumped again to an almost improbable 45.

View of Kamikatsu, Japan
The idyllic mountain town of Kamikatsu in southwestern Japan is best known for its decorative foliage industry and for being really, really good at recycling. (Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Beyond bottles and cans

Perhaps more vital than everyone remaining dutiful to making sure everything is properly sorted and disposed of at Hibigaya waste station, is the manner in which the residents of Kamikatsu treat their possessions. While a knee-jerk throwaway mentality once prevailed, villagers now treat their belongings in a more careful and respectful manner.

“When the zero waste program started, it created more burden in my life,” shop owner Takuya Takeichi tells Great Big Story. “It’s a time-consuming obligation to separate all that garbage.”

But as time went on and the village’s beyond-stringent recycling rules became a quotidian ritual, Takeichi and his fellow villagers began “looking at trash differently" in the words of Great Big Story.

“I gained a sense of taking care of things,” Takeichi says. “It’s strange but simple, I am constantly thinking now before I trash anything. We may have more of a burden but I think we all gained richness in our minds.”

As for organic household waste that can’t be sorted into one of the 45 categories and traditionally recycled a la cardboard cereal boxes and glass sake bottles, there’s a place for that, too. Composting is a citywide endeavor practiced by all residents and business owners, including recently transplanted local chef Taira Omotehara.

“Until I came here, I was not mindful about garbage at all. I just threw everything out together,” admits Omotehara. Now, “the leftover food here goes into the compost and that becomes fertilizer for the local farm, which grows the vegetables that we use here in the restaurant. Seeing that circle helped change how I look at things.” (Like most of the mountainous Tokushima Prefecture, Kamikatsu revolves around a predominately rural, agriculture-driven economy.)

“If chefs changed their mindset a little, the amount of food waste would be reduced, I think,” adds Omotehara.

When waste diversion puts a rural Japanese town on the map

Kamikatsu’s remarkable knack at collectively not sending any waste to landfills or incinerators has, not surprisingly, garnered international attention, particularly in recent years as the village draws closer to that big zero-waste year: 2020.

As the Associated Press wrote earlier this year, delegations representing municipalities and environmental groups in at least 10 countries have made the pilgrimage to Kamikatsu to watch — and learn from — what's arguably the world’s most rigorous community waste-diversion scheme in action. And further boosting the far-flung village’s appeal to curious foreign visitors, a stunning brewery-cum-community watering hole built completely from recycled materials opened in town earlier this year. (Also, a tall cold beer wouldn't be incredibly edifying after all that dutiful sorting.)

So, as you aim to use — and throw away less — in 2018, keep in mind that you likely have it easy compared to the good people of Kamikatsu. Consider their diligence and determination as something to be admired, praised and replicated.