Japanese village’s mission to banish waste inspires nation
The residents of a remote village on the Japanese island of Shikoku have spent almost two decades reusing, recycling and reducing – united behind a mission to end their dependence on incinerators and landfill as the world struggles to tackle the climate emergency and the plastic waste crisis.
Although Kamikatsu, 370 miles from Tokyo, did not manage to banish waste altogether, its efforts have inspired other communities in Japan to take up the zero-waste challenge.
Household waste must be separated into no fewer than 45 categories before being taken to a collection centre, where volunteers ensure items go into the correct bin, occasionally issuing polite reminders to anyone who forgets to take the lid and label off a bottle or remove nails from a plank of wood.
Items still in good condition end up at the Kuru Kuru recycling store, where residents can drop off or take home merchandise – mostly clothes, crockery and ornaments – free of charge.
In 2000, the village was forced to change the way it managed its waste when a new law on dioxin emissions forced it to shut its two incinerators.
The ageing, shrinking community did not have the money to build new incinerators or transport its waste to out-of-town facilities. The only option was to create less rubbish and to recycle as many items as possible.
Three years later, Kamikatsu became the first place in Japan to pass a zero-waste declaration – a statement of intent that met with initial opposition but which, in the years since, has created an community of eco-warriors.
There were complaints that the regular cycle of sorting, washing and disposing of rubbish would prove too much for the village’s 1,500 people.
“You are always going to get people who are uncooperative in any community-level project,” said Akira Sakano, head of Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Academy, a nonprofit group formed in 2005.
Instead, she added, the academy focused its energies on the 80% of residents who supported the venture and who would, in time, persuade sceptics to follow suit. “Our goal was to achieve zero waste by 2020, but we have encountered obstacles that involve stakeholders and regulations outside of our scope,” said Sakano. “And certain products are designed for single use, such as sanitary products.”
While reducing consumption has proved difficult, most villagers have embraced the recycling regime. As a result, the village has been able to keep most of its waste out of landfill.
In 2016, Kamikatsu recycled 81% of the waste it produced, compared with a national average of 20%. The small number of items that have proved impossible to recycle – including leather shoes, nappies and other sanitary products – are sent to an incinerator outside the village.
And it began addressing the growing problem of plastic – which makes up the majority of the residents’ waste – well before the rest of the country.
Japan is the world’s second biggest producer of plastic waste per capita, after the US. Its consumers get through about 30bn plastic shopping bags a year, and it once shipped 1.5m tonnes of plastic waste to China every year until Beijing banned imports in 2017.
As word of its campaign spread, the village hosted officials and campaigners from overseas and other parts of Japan, hoping to emulate the scheme.
Sakano said the future of the zerowaste project would depend on businesses and local governments collaborating to make it easier for households to recycle, but added that individuals still had a duty to reuse and reduce. “It’s a lot easier to simply refuse plastic bags than to have to build somewhere to recycle them.”
A worker sorts through rubbish at a waste recycling centre in Kamikatsu