Taking Out the Trash in JapanSociety
For most people, household garbage and recyclables are just things to take down to the curb, where they are taken away by sanitation services, never to be thought about again. In Japan, though, where landfill space is at a premium, considerable thought goes into how to categorize and discard the various types of waste produced in homes and businesses.
At the end of the year in particular, when many people do ōsōji—the “major cleaning” of their homes, so they can greet the new year in a clean, organized way—the amount of garbage increases rapidly. During the year-end and New Year holidays, sanitation services also take time off, so trash can pile up in the spots where residents put it out for collection. This makes it even more important to put trash out appropriately.
The rules for trash disposal differ from place to place in Japan. Municipalities set their own rules for how to categorize burnable garbage, nonburnable waste, plastics, recyclables, and other items. Residents need to be aware of these rules in addition to the collection schedule for each type of item.
A Focus on Recycling
Japan definitely has a trash problem. Its food producers, along with its department stores and other shops, are often called out for overpackaging the products they sell. Due in part to the country’s culture of gift-giving, even soon-to-be-eaten things like fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish can be wrapped in multiple layers of plastic, placed on Styrofoam trays, and put in plastic shopping bags before they are taken home. In 2018 the Japanese government indicated its intention to require retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags, but it remains to be seen how much this will reduce the amount of waste produced by the sector.
Some estimates say that fully 60% of household waste consists of wrappers and containers from other items. For some time Japan, as a nation that is poor in natural resources of its own, has made efforts to reduce this waste amount and recover as much of it as possible for reuse or recycling. But despite some success stories like the town of Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture, which asks residents to divide garbage into 45 different types across 13 categories in pursuit of its goal of achieving zero waste, Japan as a whole lags behind other developed nations in terms of its recycling processes.
Sorting Trash to Save the Earth
The rules for sorting the things you throw away into different categories can be very different depending on the Japanese municipality you live in. Some places, like Kamikatsu, mentioned above, require residents to separate garbage into food waste, recyclable paper, burnables, plastics, other nonburnables, and many other categories; meanwhile, many cities in central Tokyo allow residents to place burnable items like paper scraps and food waste together with certain types of plastic for incineration. It can be difficult even for Japanese residents to stay on top of the rules, and detailed guidelines are often not available in foreign languages for residents hailing from abroad. Below we list some general guidelines to keep in mind as you look for detailed instructions from the municipal government where you live.
Types of Trash
- Burnable refuse
This includes anything that can be incinerated: kitchen waste, paper scraps, small bits of wood or cloth, rubber and leather items, and so forth. In some locations plastic not marked with a plastic recycling mark is included here; old clothing, if not collected separately, may also fall in this category.
- Nonburnable refuse
Items made of metal, broken glass, cups and dishes, ceramics, and so on go in this category. Depending on the municipality, nonburnables may also include electronic devices, cigarette lighters, dead batteries, and spray cans, but these may fall under a separate “hazardous items” category instead. Plastic items not marked with a plastic recycling mark may be in this category in some locations; check local rules.
Bottles, aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles, magazines and newspapers, cardboard, scrap paper, and flattened milk cartons can fall under this category. Cardboard and paper items generally need to be tied up in bundles, often with recyclable string made from paper.
- Oversized items
Home appliances, furniture, bedding, and items exceeding a certain size (often 30 centimeters on one side) must be put out on certain days after contacting the sanitation authorities to arrange pickup, and is generally a paid service. Note that this does not include items covered by the Home Appliance Recycling Act, such as air conditioners, television sets, refrigerators, washers/driers, and computers.
Other Rules to Keep in Mind
The rules governing how trash must be packed and put out for collection can differ greatly from place to place, but a few general guidelines are as follows.
- Garbage bags
Many municipalities require trash to be placed in specified garbage bags for collection. These can be bought at supermarkets, convenience stores, and many other outlets, and come in different sizes and separate colors indicating the type of trash that goes in each of them.
- Packing burnables
Kitchen waste should be drained of as much moisture as possible before bagging, and bags should be tied tightly and placed out for collection at the proper time to prevent crows, cats, or other animals from scattering the garbage.
- Packing nonburnables
Refuse should go in the appropriate trash bags and be placed out for collection on the appropriate day. Sharp objects like old knives, broken glass, and needles should be packed in bags marked with the characters キケン (kiken), “hazardous,” so that collection workers can avoid injury when picking them up. Dead light bulbs should be placed in original packaging, if available, to avoid breakage. (If you bought a new bulb to replace a dead one, hold on to its box for this purpose.)
- Putting out recyclables
Cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles should be rinsed clean. Remove labels from the outside of the containers whenever possible. Place them out for collection in bags, or put them in containers provided for this purpose if they are used in your area.
- Disposing of large items
You’ll need to contact your municipal government or check its website for information on how to discard large items in your area. You may need to purchase a sticker, usually costing several hundred yen, at your local convenience store or supermarket and affix it to the item to pay for this collection service. Be careful to only place the item out for collection on the decided day after arranging for the service.
Check Your Local Rules and Collection Schedule
When you move to a new location in Japan, you are required to visit the municipal office and register yourself as a resident. When you do this, you’ll get an information packet including details on the trash collection rules and a calendar indicating when each category of trash is collected in your neighborhood. This information is generally available on the municipal government’s website as well, sometimes in multiple languages. These rules and schedules differ from place to place, so you need to check them as soon as possible upon arrival in a new residence.
The rules can also differ within a single municipality depending on what neighborhood you live in, or on whether you’re in an apartment building that has a dedicated trash storage area or a house where you need to put out items individually on the appropriate days. Some neighborhood associations have a rotating schedule to assign trash collection point clean-up duty, and many places will require that burnable trash be placed in containers with lids or under weighted nets to keep animals from scattering it. It may also be against the rules to put trash out the night before for morning pickup to keep nocturnal creatures from making a mess.
The end of December and the beginning of January are an especially busy time for sanitation workers, as many people throw out more trash than usual as they clean their homes at the end of the year.The trash can pile up during the vacation lasting into the New Year, as well. Be sure to check the schedule to see when the last collection day of the year falls, and when you can count on the trash to be carted away once the next year begins!
Information on Garbage Collection RulesThe following are a few examples of city websites in Tokyo that provide information on trash rules for English-speaking residents. Be sure to take a look at the website for your area and ask for help at the municipal office if you’re unsure about what to do!
- Chūō: Everyday Life
- Shibuya: Garbage and Recycling
- Katsushika: Garbage disposal, recycling
- Nakano: How to Separate Recyclable Materials and Dispose of Them
- Setagaya: How to Properly Sort and Dispose of Garbage and Recyclable
- Kita: Garbage Collection Procedures for Foreign Residents
- Shinagawa: How to Separate and Dispose of Waste and Recyclable Items