Saturday, January 26, 2008

Let's talk trash

It's time.

Time to talk about a subject that rather twists my stomach up in knots of rage:

The trash.

Yes, I recently worked myself up into a real froth about the trash. I am officially lame.

No, but really. The trash is unquestionably the one thing I dislike most about Japan. I don't just dislike the trash here — I hate it. Loath it. When the subject of trash comes up, I want to kick and scream and thrash like a cranky two-year-old whose evil mother just snatched away her lollipop. I never thought that trash removal would become such a major source of stress in my life in Japan.

Back home, one of the copy editors at the newspaper had on his desk an enormous button reading "The more you complain, the longer God lets you live." I say "Amen!" to that!

In that spirit, I shall proceed.

This is the poster hanging on our refrigerator. This poster explains how we're supposed to sort our trash.

In Japan, you are not allowed to just throw all your trash into one big bag and haul it to the curb once a week. Japan just doesn't have the space for lots of big landfills like America. You are supposed to sort every little scrap of trash you produce and remember to take out the proper category of trash on the proper day. "Taking out" the trash involves tossing it onto a small triangular patch of concrete next to our apartment building. It is not an actual Dumpster, just a piece of sidewalk designated as the trash area. So you must discard your rubbish each morning before pick-up at 8:30 AM. Putting the trash out the night before is apparently unacceptable as stray animals (which I have never seen in our neighborhood) might get into it. If you put out your trash too late, or if you forget to put out the trash one day, you are shit out of luck. It must remain stinking up your house until the next pick-up date.

Here in Hiroshima, we are lucky. We have only EIGHT different categories of trash! Lucky for us, this poster uses a handful of poorly drawn illustrations to guide you through categorizing each and every piece of trash you produce in a day. Yea!

So this is how the system works! Are you ready?

Every Monday and Thursday, we can take out "burnable" trash, which is food garbage and anything paper or cloth. This trash must be contained in a paper bag. All other trash categories are placed in clear plastic bags.

Every Wednesday, we can pitch "PET" plastic, like plastic water bottles. But we have to remove the plastic labels and the caps from the bottles, because those go in a different bag for "recyclable plastic," which also is picked up on Wednesday. Recyclable plastic includes stuff like potato chip bags and plastic wrap and Styrofoam.

On Tuesday — not every Tuesday now, only every second and fourth Tuesday — we can throw out "hard" plastic. Video tapes, CDs, sneakers, toys, and apparently sponges (not sure how that's "hard" plastic, but whatever).

There are two different categories that go out on the first and third Tuesday of each month. One is newspapers, books, cardboard (corrugated cardboard as well as cardboard milk and juice cartons) and some other unknown crap, which must all be separated and tied up in neat stacks. Coats and curtains can also go out, as well as metal and glass. The other category looks like batteries, thermometers, aerosol cans and fluorescent light bulbs.

OK. Now on every second and fourth Friday, we can pitch a mishmash of other crap, including pottery, ice packs, perfume bottles, irons, hair dryers, more pills (weren't those in category one?), umbrellas, thermoses, regular light bulbs, lighters, boots and cupcake wrappers (don't ask me why those aren't considered paper... maybe they're waxed paper, which DUH, isn't regular paper?)

And for the last category, you have to schedule a special pick up and pay a $30 fee. It includes any furniture, bicycles, gas cans, futon mats, appliances, televisions or vacuum cleaners.

WHEW!! Got that?

So right now in our tiny little apartment, Joe and I have five different trash bins, as well as an extra bag of trash that sits on the floor next to the trash bins.

It's difficult to comprehend what a colossal pain in the ass separating trash is until you have to do it. Sometimes I have trash that I just don't know how to categorize. Where do I throw away the Pringles containers? When the symbol printed on the back of my pack of disposable razors says recyclable, does that mean just the packaging, or the razors too?

What really annoys me is all the needless packaging used in Japan. You buy a package of cookies only to find that every cookie inside is individually wrapped. I once saw a big bag of cheesy poofs that, when opened, actually contained three smaller bags of cheesy poofs. The amount of plastic wrap produced in this country is unreal. You'd think this wouldn't be the case in a country so obsessed with recycling. Not so.

It also is highly annoying that we are regularly inundated with large volumes of newspaper advertisements. Newspaper can only be thrown out once every two weeks. We don't get the newspaper here, since we can't read Japanese. So I'm supposed to start a new pile of trash because of all this junk mail.

And you don't think about how many different categories some of your trash fits into. For example, when Joe and I moved in, we inherited some household items from our predecessors as well as a bunch of possessions that we didn't want. One of these items was a sort-of beat-up unopened Pez dispenser package with candy. In order to throw this away, I had to open the package and throw the clear plastic packaging into recyclable plastic and the other part into cardboard. The Pez dispenser itself went into hard plastic. I had to unwrap each candy packet and pitch the wrapping into recyclable plastic and the actual candy into burnable garbage.

We also inherited a TV stand. After getting it home, we discovered the bottom of the stand was covered in mold, which I just couldn't seem to completely clean off. I couldn't exactly carry it the couple miles back to school, and we weren't about to pay $30 to throw it away, either. So it's been sitting on our back porch ever since, along with a giant broken plastic bin we inherited and the cardboard we can never seem to remember to throw away on the right day.

At my school, there are separate bins for all the trash in the teachers' office. However, there is nowhere to throw food garbage. The "burnable" bin is only for paper. Only after I brought a grapefruit to school one day did I discover I was not allowed to throw it away anywhere. I had to put it in a plastic bag and carry it home to throw it away there. Students have it even worse. They are prohibited from producing any kind of trash. So they must take all their papers, wrappers and everything else home to throw them away.

You may read this and think, "Well this sounds like a giant pain in the ass, I'd just throw it all away in one bag anyway." Or maybe, you think you'd just chuck all your garbage into the nearest business dumpster.


Public trash receptacles are, of course, virtually non-existent. Sometimes you do find bottle recycling bins next to vending machines, but otherwise you are forced to carry trash home with you. I remember one scorching hot day last summer when Joe and I bought ice cream treats out of a vending machine at the bus station. After enjoying the treats, we realized there was nowhere to throw the wrappers. I wasn't about to put a wrapper covered in melty ice cream into my purse to drip all over everything. So I actually ducked into the ladies bathroom and secretly pitched it in the little bin they put in each stall for disposal of "feminine products." There was no where else to throw it! That's right, even the bathrooms don't have real trash cans, or paper towels for that matter. You have to carry your own rag if you don't want to dry your hands on your pants.

So, you are forced to throw stuff away at home, unless you're clever like me and you hide your old ice cream wrappers in the tampon trash. And at home, you will face consequences for mis-sorting your trash.

Believe it or not, the trash collectors will actually rummage around in your trash to see if you've sorted it properly. If you screw it up, they refuse to take it. Then you, being the stupid resident gaijin, whom everyone knows is too ignorant to properly sort the trash, are forced to pick back up your rejected trash and slink back to your apartment with it to avoid embarrassment.

Some neighborhoods even have what I call the Trash Police. This is a local resident who volunteers to pick through people's garbage to see if it's properly sorted. If it's not, they may personally confront you and tell you that you are doing it wrong and that you need to fix it. We heard horror stories when we first got here about people being yelled at for messing it up, or about cranky neighbors who actually delivered the trash to a teacher's school to humiliate him into sorting it properly.

In one case, a couple in a city near Tokyo even got evicted for consistently ignoring the rules of sorting. You should really read that entire article. It's fascinating.

Thus, paralyzed with fear and unable to clearly understand the ambiguous drawings on our trash poster, Joe and I watched the trash pile higher and higher in our apartment our first couple weeks here until we could get it all figured out.

On the surface, you'd look at Japan and think they must truly care about conservation and the environment to be so anal about recycling rather than shipping everything off to the landfills. In reality, the system is so needlessly complex that a lot of people just say "screw it" and go about creating their own personal landfills in the mountains.

Joe and I saw this first hand last weekend when we headed to northern Hiroshima and hiked up Midorii Gongin mountain, home to the beautiful Bishamonten temple. Peering down the valley between the slopes, the sights made me boil with anger:

All down the mountainside, the ground was covered in a layer of garbage: bottles, cans, lamp shades, rusted bicycles, televisions, tires, air conditioners, plastic crap that will never, ever decompose. The sad part was seeing this rubbish strewn among what would otherwise be a very peaceful, picturesque forest of bamboo trees.

Signs were up all along the road warning people that littering could result in a $3,000 fine. That's working as a fine deterrent, obviously.

This kind of dumping is apparently a problem all over Japan. In fact, this article says that Mt. Fuji is so trashed that the government is too embarrassed to recommend it as a UNESCO Natural Heritage site. It states that, in December, "the Yamanashi and Shizuoka governments jointly conducted a survey to map out the most polluted spots. Yamanashi found 87 tons of illegally dumped garbage and Shizuoka found 41.5 tons on its side."

Wow. What a tragedy.

They're trying to clean it up now, and the government instead hopes to have Fuji designated as a Cultural Heritage site.

Wonderful, beautiful, fantastic. What I would like to see now is a nationwide clean-up to clean ALL the mountains that have been trashed this way. And some kind of simplification of the trash removal system. For my own sanity, if nothing else.


Diane said...

I thought I had it bad here with three bags of trash: 1) paper, 2)metal/plastic and 3) everything else. That sounds like such a pain. I can't even imagine a place without a trash can on every corner!

Anonymous said...

And to think that one of my potential inventions was going to be a "Turbo Burn Barrel". The problem with that idea is not that it wouldn't work - I do know my pyrodynamics - but that no hillbilly would ever fork out the money for one of them.