Ja­panese vil­lage’s mis­sion to ban­ish waste in­spires na­tion

The Guardian - - World - Justin McCurry ▲

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

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