The View from the Garbage Truck

Society Environment

A municipal government specialist, the author worked for nine months collecting garbage in Shinjuku. This firsthand experience gave him rare insight into the reality of sanitation work.

Nine Months of Collecting Trash

While in my postgrad program, I learned about research into sanitation conducted by the public administration scholar Yorimoto Katsumi, which involved riding in garbage trucks. I found myself wanting to conduct similar real-world research too, one day. Later, the chance to participate in actual garbage collection work myself presented itself by sheer coincidence, and I didn’t hesitate. From June 2016 to March 2017, I worked irregularly in trash collection, based out of the Shinjuku East Sanitation Center.

In the course of this work, I experienced the full scope of the collection and transport work that the city of Shinjuku is responsible for, including: collecting combustible trash in garbage trucks; using compact vehicles for trash collection down narrow lanes; making personalized pick-ups to residences where elderly people live alone; making patrols and collections in Shinjuku 2-chōme, a district noted for its denizens’ lawless approach to refuse disposal; breaking open trash bags which had combustibles mixed with non-combustibles to separate them; issuing rule guidance to violators; and environmental education at elementary schools. For almost a year, hot summer days and cold winter days alike, I observed this work firsthand as I carried it out. I consider this to be the start of my research into the intricacies of trash collection in Tokyo.

I experienced a variety of things on this job that I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. Some examples that are still with me now include the surprise of finding my own breath smelling of garbage in the course of working in trash collection; putting what seemed like wheat flour from a bakery into the truck and crushing it, only to have the bag burst and find myself suddenly coated in the stuff; and the stunning odor that assailed my nostrils and lingered for the rest of the day when, after loading remainders from a butcher shop into the truck, I was splattered with meat juices when we ran the crusher on it.

More than all the rest, though, was what this work did to my back. There were times when, after loading the requisite six garbage trucks’ worth of trash in a given day, my lower back and hips were so worn out the next day that I couldn’t even stand at the lectern. What is more, I got fed up with the all of the trash, which never let up no matter how much I collected, and found myself wishing only for the work to be over as soon as possible. And to top it off, there were lots of things being thrown out that could still have been useful, which gave me pause about our waste of natural resources.

Inconsiderate Trash Disposal

Doing the work myself drove home the sense of mission that sanitation workers feel about their work. While I cannot say for certain that they all feel this way, it is clear that many of them take pride in what they consider to be a duty to provide a hygienic environment to the citizenry, and that this belief informs the performance of their jobs. I was profoundly struck by the sight of these workers, doggedly carrying out a job that most people wouldn’t want to do, and which is looked down upon by our society as a whole. At the same time, I was also angry and disgusted in many instances at the ways people threw out their trash, as if they went out of their way to insult these workers. Here are some examples.

First, we have trash from which fluids have not been drained. Not only does the extra fluid content make the garbage heavier than it would otherwise be, requiring more effort to put on the truck, but worse, when it gets crushed in the truck, the trash bags burst and spray their contents all over the road, almost three meters away in some cases. And as it would be unacceptable for homes, vehicles, or passers-by to get any of this on themselves, sanitation workers must put themselves between such messes and the local environment, effectively having to be human shields.

Then there are trash bags that aren’t properly tied shut. Pedestrians and vehicles alike are often obstructed in the course of making pickups at trash collection sites, and trash collectors grab trash bags by their ties, so that they can load the bags on the trucks more quickly. If the ties are not fastened tightly, however, bags can unexpectedly come open in the course of collection, with the contents being scattered all over the road, and traffic is held up even longer while the workers scramble to clean up the resulting mess.

Lastly, there is trash that hasn’t been properly sorted according to municipal rules. When spray cans, lighters, or cell phone batteries are tossed in with combustible trash, they have been known to cause garbage trucks to catch fire. When these vehicles are damaged beyond repair as a result, they must be replaced, to the tune of some ¥8 million apiece in taxpayer money.

Sanitation workers take a very broad-minded attitude to such slap-dash garbage disposal practices committed by the very citizens whom they silently serve. However, this does not change the fact that such behavior demands more effort, labor, and equipment than should be necessary, and these consequences are ultimately borne by the citizens themselves.

Privatization Is No Panacea

One thing I noticed right away when I started out on the job was just how many workers were being dispatched from private companies. Privatization is being adopted aggressively, together with cutbacks in public-sector staff. As of this writing, some 80% of trash collection across Japan is done by the private sector. In line with the movement at the national level to reform municipal government, trash collection is the first such work to be targeted, because people have a tendency to think that anyone can do it. Hence, trash collection is privatized, and fewer workers are being hired to do the job. But one only has to actually experience the job once to realize that, as with any job, there is more to trash collection than meets the eye. There is job-specific knowledge, and the quality of the sanitation worker’s work improves through accumulated on-the-job experience, with workers thus being trained to provide sanitation services that fulfill citizens’ needs.

Many people, including the private-contract workers I interviewed, strike a pragmatic pose of doing work that no one wants to do and being compensated for fulfilling the associated responsibility. This is far removed from the motivation that professional sanitation workers have, and I got no sense from these contractors that they would make any effort to offer improved service to the citizenry.

Citizens who desire efficient administration look forward to more and more privatization. That way, however, leads to degraded quality of sanitation performance and an associated decline in services provided to citizens. In other words, the consequences of these moves will be visited on we the people.

Further Contributions

Even as they are being swamped by the current privatization craze, sanitation workers are evaluating what is required to do work with people’s needs in mind, and developing new operations to this end.

One such operation is personalized pick-ups, where the workers come right up to the doors of people who have difficulties in taking out their trash, such as households where single elderly persons or persons with disabilities reside. In addition to trash collection, they offer the added service of making sure that these people are all right. And as dying alone and unattended has grown to become a societal concern in present-day Japan, this endeavor represents a new form of public-sector administrative service, one that combines sanitation with public welfare.

Sanitation workers who hear what the citizens themselves have to say in the course of making the rounds of their areas for these personalized pick-ups are also able to spot early indicators of changes in road conditions and residential circumstances in the towns where they work. This fact makes these workers into prized municipal assets which have the potential to contribute to local safety and security. For example, in the event that another major earthquake happens (something that has a 70% likelihood of happening within the next 30 years, according to the Cabinet Office), then sanitation workers could be a reassuring presence, taking advantage of their inherent ability to get around to safeguard the very lives of the citizens they serve.

Meanwhile, the city of Hachiōji in western Tokyo is promulgating a new slogan of “unskilled labor no more,” as part of an effort to start thinking of sanitation workers not as simple manual laborers, but rather as experts who know all there is to know about waste and waste disposal.

En route between collection sites, sanitation workers may hear a parent say to a child, “Study hard, or that’s what you’ll end up doing with your life.” Such talk is most disappointing, but reality is slowly starting to change from that parent’s conception. The work of sanitation is beginning to shift from mere trash collection to understanding and meeting the needs of citizens in their local communities.

As a result, it might not be too long before we see kids who look at garbage trucks and proudly say that they want to make a useful contribution to society by driving them. I sincerely hope that we will make such a community. To that end, we need further consciousness-raising on the part of the people doing trash collection work day in and day out; a sense of respect from citizens for these selfsame sanitation workers who are dedicated to doing a job well that no one wants to do; and a genuine will from these same citizens to show proper regard for, and to do their part in, the work of sanitation.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 15, 2019. Banner photo: Trash collection in Shinjuku, November 2018. © Tokyo Seisō Shinjuku.)

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