"Reduce, Reuse and Recycle." It's an old adage I remember hearing in school, or at the very least on some well-intentioned, but not knock-your-socks-off interesting, episode of Captain Planet. Regardless of where I heard it, one thing is very clear, recycling is DEEPLY entrenched part of Japanese culture. So knowing how to recycle is one of the essential, habitual skills you should know and understand if you're here.
Luckily, Japan makes recycling so much easier than you think. It's for damn sure way easier than it was for me in my good old state of Georgia in the US of A.
In this guide I'm personally going to walk you through recycling basics. How to recycle paper, plastic, discard oversized garbage, cardboard, and more. If there are sections that you need to skip to, use the table of contents above to do a bit of "just in time" learning.
I remember being a bright-eyed, kid, trying to recycle in my hometown as a kid. The result? Lots of laughter, eye-rolling, and sighs. Back then, finding a recycling bin in Decatur, Georgia was like trying to find a cell phone in the early 90's, you heard about 'em but you never really saw 'em.
Finding places was to recycle was one major issue, the other issue was that the city services weren't set up to do it. More than likely, the things you were recycling were probably going straight from recycle bin to land fill. Though I can't speak for other countries, Landfills were...are?...America's DEEPLY entrenched waste management system.
This is a million dollar, devil's advocate question...but it's fair one. What's the point? In America, I eventually gave up on trying because it proved to be way too time consuming and way too difficult to do on my own. But here in Japan, it's different.
Recycling here in Japan only takes slightly more effort than throwing something away. I think the powers that be know that it's a necessity and pretty much all barriers to entry have been removed. No excuse, people!
Being that Japan is a smaller country than many, the indiscriminate trash-dumping that you might find in many American households isnʼt much of an option here. Consider this, the US has a population of over 324 million people and 50 nifty states to hold them all. Japan has a smaller population 126 million people (still pretty substantial) and houses them in a land mass smaller than the state of California! It's way more densely packed than the US will ever be.
This explains so much about the culture. People live in smaller homes, use more public transportation and live off of less because they have to. Since there are fewer places to put landfills, what on earth do people do with their trash here in Japan? The vast majority actually recycle their garbage. Interesting, right?
I swear I'm not getting on my soap box here. I've can't point fingers any more than the average Joe or Jill. But in a place where there's less space, people have to be a bit more (just a bit) conscious of how they consume and the waste they create. If Japan adopted some of the "Well, someone else will take care of it" practices you see in so many American cities...this place would be in trouble fast.
One of my biggest fascinations/semi-culture shocking things that I found when I got here was that a number of Japanʼs citizens taking pride in the environment around them, maybe without even realizing it. Recycling is just one of those things that people habitually do here. But don't get this confused, there are seedier parts of town where people just don't care at all.
I'm kicking off the how to section of this guide with PET bottles as they are one of the most common types of waste that accumulate and one of most common recycle bins you'll see around Japan. One reason PET bottles are so common is because the Land of the Rising Sun is like vending machine central, especially in your more populous cities. When you walk through a number of train stations, namely ones on the Japan Rail, it's pretty easy find a drink machines (not always but most times). Man machines have a recycle bin housed right next to machine. You'll see a hole for pet bottles and sometimes for glass ones, too.
There are four easy steps to recycle a PET bottle:
STEP 1: REMOVE THE BOTTLE CAP
STEP 2: REMOVE THE BOTTLE'S PLASTIC LABEL
STEP 3: RINSE THE BOTTLE AND EMPTY IT
STEP 4: TWIST or CRUSH AND RECYCLE BIN IT
Feels like they've even thought of the little things with recycling here. If you look at any PET bottle (I have yet to find an exception), there is a section of the label that shows you where you can peel the label. The labels will have either a partial label that uses a bit of adhesive or a full label that's perforated on one side.
When you're recycling things, you very well may see bottles tossed into recycle bins with caps still screwed on and labels still attached. This is a lazier approach to recycling, but making the attempt is better than no attempt at all in this case. However, the recommended method by nearly every recycling pamphlet i've ever seen is to remove both the cap and label. For this guide, let's focus as best we can on how to recycle things properly.
Cans and glass bottles generally have fewer pickup days than say plastic or burnable garbage, so try to be mindful of that if you can. But here are the three easy steps to recycling cans.
Step 1: RINSE and EMPTY
STEP 2: TOSS IT IN THE RECYCLE BIN
Discarding plastic is one of the easier ones. Simply look for the trusty plastic, recycle symbol and discard into a non-burnable waste/recycle bin. If it's plastic that you've eaten with, or eaten out of, it's a great general rule to rinse and drain the items before discarding them.
With plastic it's not difficult process, but as we mentioned earlier, knowing the right day to dispose things is really important.
STEP 1: Cut all tape to make sure that your cardboard box or corrugated box lays flat
STEP 2: If you have multiple boxes, stack and tie them together using twine or something similar (you can find this at a 100 yen store fairly easily). Tie the boxes in a patter almost like ribbons on a gift.
STEP 3: Put your cardboard boxes in the appropriate recycle area.
Paper and magazines follow a very similar process to cardboard and corrugated boxes. When we're talking paper in this case, we don't mean regular, burnable garbage as that is one of the items (in addition to things like food waste) that actually gets discarded.
For newspapers and magazines:
STEP 1: Stack and twine your newspapers/magazines in a similar pattern as you would a Christmas gift
STEP 2: Place your items in the appropriate recycling area.
Paper will be treated almost exactly like cardboard boxes in that you have to cut them so that they lie flat. If you take a look at most cartons in Japan, the have an image on the box, showing you exactly where you should cut to get the cartons to lie flat. Be sure to tie together cartons with twine should you need to stack them.
This is one of those lesser known things here in Japan. When you have a large item that can't be picked up using a normal waste disposal truck. You do have to go through a bit more work.
STEP 1: You have to contact your local city hall's waste disposal services to arrange pickup. If you don't speak Japanese, it might be better to get a friend to help out. I have yet to do this in English.
STEP 2: Go to your local convenience store to pick up sodai gomi stickers.
STEP 3: Stick the labels on your items
STEP 4: Be available at your requested time for pickup or put the large trash item in the proper spot for arranged pickup
This is where my knowledge gets a little fuzzy. However, I do know that the recycled items that go get picked up aren't getting the bait and switch treatment. They're not going to landfills. How do I know? I had a chance to visit a recycling center,but only for a short time. I was moving to a new apartment and missed the deadline to throw out one of my oversized items (I think it was a mattress). Anyway, a Japanese friend with an sports utility vehicle offered to drive me to the recycling center to deliver the item directly.
This may be a useful not for those of you with oversized garbage items.
I didn't have time to really take a close look at all that was happening. But so much more goes on behind the scenes than we know. I hope to make some time to visit one of these Japanese recycling centers and get a better idea of what happens after we "get rid of" our trash and recyclables. When I do, I'll be adding updates, so stay tuned...
Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.