12 Oct

I had a pretty exhausting weekend. I spent Sunday in Tokyo, going there and back on an overnight bus. So a total of roughly 16 hours on buses during the night with not much sleep. But it was still fun, and I got to spend some time and blow a lot of money in Akihabara. But instead of talking about that tonight, I’m going to talk about garbage.

In America, there’s two types of garbage, really. First you have your traditional garbage, which is anything you don’t want anymore. You put it in a plastic bag, bring it out to a big bin when that bag gets full, and someone drives a truck up and takes it so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. And then there’s recycling, which was invented by Ronald Reagan in 1978. I think. I came to Japan as an English teacher, not a historian. Kind of the same deal; you take certain kinds of waste and put it in a special bin for a different guy to come pick up. Then it’s carted away so it can be reconstituted into raw materials (though I suspect it ends up in the same place the garbage does).

Occasionally you get something weird, like a leaking car battery or a felled tree that you need to take care of specially, though you’re perhaps just as likely to shuffle it into the garage and hope you can forget about it.

In Japan, garbage is treated a bit differently… Behold!

The Periodic Table of Garbage

In Japan, garbage needs to be handled in very specific ways. In fact, “garbage” is only that which cannot possibly be reused. Otherwise it is a resource. I think that’s supposed to be the whole idea of recycling but many Americans probably don’t give it that much thought.

So, certain garbage or “resources” are collected at varying times depending on what they are. First is actual garbage, or what we sometimes call burnable, since that’s what’s going to happen to it. Burnable garbage is collected twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Burnable garbage primarily consists of food remains, as well as packaging that has become too soiled to be cleaned (usually paper). Also things like CDs, cigarettes and diapers. Occasionally it’s also resources that you’re too lazy to sort, but don’t tell anyone.

Burnable garbage must be put in special white plastic bags, which are made and marked for that purpose. If it is in any other bag I presume it will not be collected (or at least you will get complaints about it). The bags can be purchased from stores. Anyway, we often put our burnable garbage in blue bins like these:

These bins can be put out the night before for convenience. However, if they fill up then you have to bring the bags themselves out the next morning. Leaving the bags out at night risks having them torn apart by wild animals, since the contents are usually food based.

Next is plastic. Plastics are collected once a week, on Friday morning. Like burnable garbage, plastics must be put into a special purpose bag, this one being colored blue. Plastics include things like soap bottles, wrapping, snack bags, styrofoam and so on. Curiously they do not include plastic bottles for drinks, which are commonly called “pet bottles.” I will cover those soon. Plastics must be cleaned out thoroughly before thrown away.

Meanwhile, paper is collected on Friday as well, although only once every two weeks. Paper, of course, includes things like packaging, receipts, cards, etc., so long as they do not become soiled. It does not include cardboard (at least thick, corrugated cardboard that packages use), and also does not include cartons. Those are also a special case. While they do make paper bags specifically for garbage collection, it’s also fine to use paper shopping bags. Because of this, the women at Shirasagi tend to have more than enough bags for throwing away paper while the men are always trying to find some.

Plastics and papers set out for the night.

It is okay to put these bags out the night before since they aren’t supposed to have contents that attract animals. At least until that new breed of plastic-eating wildcat comes around the evolutionary chain.

However, the big enchilada is soudai gomi, or “big garbage” day. Big garbage is all the stuff you can’t get rid of on normal garbage/resource days, as well as the special case items. Big garbage is collected twice a month, but there’s not a real consistency to when. The days are simply scheduled for the year, and you’d better have that schedule. They tend to be 14~16 days apart.

Admittedly it doesn’t look so “big” here.

Each neighborhood has a designated place for big garbage. Depending on the collection schedule, they will typically put out designated collection spots for whatever kind of garbage. There are collections for big wooden items (chairs, tables, cabinets), big metal items (fans, irons, bikes), big plastic items (trash bins, hoses, appliances primarily made of plastic). There are also collections for aluminum cans, the aforementioned pet bottles, and the paper cartons. All of these must be cleaned out, pet bottles must have their labels removed, and paper cartons need to be cut apart so they can lay flat.

There is also a collection for paper goods like newspapers and cardboard boxes. Boxes too must be cut apart so they can lay flat, and then must be bound together with twine. Glass is also collected, and that is further sorted by color (clear, green or brown). There’s also a collection for bedding and rugs, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen them out.


I should mention that many convenience stores also have collection bins for commonly used items like pet bottles, cans, bottles and cartons. It’d be pretty annoying if you could only dispose of those twice a week. Though… I guess the fact you have to take them to a convenience store is still kind of annoying.

And of course, there are things that the city will just not collect. These include dangerous items, like gas cans, and major electronics, like TVs and computers. In these cases, you must call for and pay a special collection service to get rid of these. Yeesh.

Truth be told, it’s not all that painful when you get the hang of it. It’s a lot to explain, but in practice it’s not a lot of effort. But there is one thing that does annoy me. For a system so particular about how garbage is collected, the city seems very reluctant to collect it. It is annoying to have to wait for certain days to throw away particular garbage, especially if you accidentally missed one of those days previously. I’m especially affected since I use online shopping so much; I’m always getting cardboard containers. Not to mention that many stores will go to great lengths to tidily and securely package whatever you buy, just so you can throw it out later.

Furthermore, you just don’t see a lot of trash cans anywhere. A lot of times I see people using vending machines, they will stand by the machine until they finish their drink. This is because there is seldom any other place around to throw away the can or bottle. Sometimes I’ll stop for food while I’m out running errands, and have to ask an attendant to throw something away for me. Maybe that’s actually how it’s supposed to be done, but I find it a little embarrassing.

If you want us to be good about disposing of garbage and resources, at least help more in taking it off our hands!


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