Japanese dumpster blues

Image source: Julie in Japan
Image source: Julie in Japan

Dumpsters in Japan?  The search for Japanese decorative dumpster art proved fruitless, with little to contribute to Decorative Dumpster Day, except for these thoughts on the art of garbage sorting and recycling in Japan.


“Innocently I have always assumed my life would never be touched by evil. As a child, I was protected by my parents, sheltered under their wings at home and never allowed to see the scary things that awaited me. In college I was slightly less sheltered, but still never shivered in wind of iniquity that wilted the rest of the world. Who knew that Japan, a country of order and beauty, would be the first place for me to take the full brunt of the horror we call GARBAGE SORTING AND RECYCLING.

It all began my first day in Japan. While moving into my new apartment, my supervisor casually handed me a shiny, folded piece of paper. Eagerly I opened it, expecting maybe a poster to adorn my new abode or an advertisement for a local event. Colorful illustrations were revealed as I unfolded the mysterious paper and I eagerly pressed my nose forward to interpret the pictures. Not only weren’t they of people in traditional dress at a local matsuri or an advertisement for a party, but they were of garbage. A dozen differently colored squares drifted bewilderingly across the page with mystical symbols like “PET” and “PURA.” Plastic bags and Styrofoam were in the blue box in the top left corner with some pretty kanji and drink bottles were in the green box on the right. Clothes, oily rags and eggshells were in another box flanked by a long divided color-coded strip along the bottom. This was all well and good, but what the hell did it mean?

From my years of cultural study (also known as watching anime) I was already aware that Japan has very strict garbage laws and that burnable garbage had to be separated from other materials. From the US side of things I thought, “It can’t be that hard. I’ve a college degree. I’m sure I’ll be able to handle sorting my garbage.” Confronted with the reality10 zillion miles from home, my stunned brain came to a completely different conclusion, which sounded something like this: “OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD…”

And so my journey towards garbage enlightenment began. I taped the poster to the wall of my kitchen and studied it every day, trying to discern which garbage went where by the small pictures. After intense begging sessions my supervisor was kind enough to translate it… which made it just as hard to understand as it was before, except for the fact that I knew which days recycling and garbage were picked up. Burnable twice a week, one type of recycling once a month and the other half a month. Great. I could already envision the piles of recycling and the gokiburi (cockroaches) that the moldering pile would attract (I was already devising a way to surreptitiously discard tuna fish cans). But Chin Up! I thought to myself. You didn’t tramp all the way over thousands of miles and hundreds of other JET applicants to be defeated by garbage! Where’s your fighting spirit?!

Later that night I constructed my defenses against the beast I would be fighting. Double layered grocery bags went into the freezer for food waste (to avoid stench and bug issues – yes it’s that hot). Separate containers were constructed for plastic bags, Styrofoam, net bags and the other things pictured in Green Box Number One. Next came boxes for metal cans and drink bottles. Wash everything, remove the labels (which are a different material and therefore separated into a different sorting category), dry, crush, oh and don’t forget to remove the caps! They’re burnable! Even though they’re plastic too! Paper and cardboard get bundled and tied, but only corrugated cardboard! And only newspapers and magazines that were sent to you on Monday and Thursday by a virgin in the pale moonlight could be recycled! (ok, end sarcasm).

After a month of careful diligence the time finally came for my deposit to the Golden Heaven of Recyclable Objects (I had followed the Nine-fold Path of Sorting to the “t!” I was sure to make it to nirvana!) Bundling my stuff in bags the night before recycling was due to be picked up, I consulted the map kindly provided by my landlady. Scoping it out, I discovered that the recycling bins were 3 SMEGGING BLOCKS AWAY FROM MY HOUSE. Concealing the smoke coming from my ears with a hat, I proceeded outside to strap the bags of gomi to my bike. I looked vaguely like a kleptomaniac homeless woman with a magpie addiction to shiny materials cycling down the road with 5 bags of recycling tied to various parts of my bike and my own subsequent anatomy. Luckily it was around 11pm, so no one saw me struggling and almost falling into a drainage ditch… until I finally pulled in to the parking lot where I was going to leave all my crap (all this after a crazy dart through several rice fields which the recycling shed is hidden behind). I’m dismounting from my bike when two old ladies hurry out from the house behind the shed. They kindly proceeded to explain to me that there was no way I could leave my recycling there, because a) the shed was locked and all the garbage would blow away and b) you couldn’t drop it off the night before, you had to be at the recycling place at 6 smeggin’ AM to drop it off. Of course all of this was in rapid-fire Japanese that wasn’t in the least dumbed down for poor Gaijin-san even after multiple applications of the words “sumimasen, wakarimasen” and “chotto muzukashi.” Luckily they knew pantomime (half of me was thankful for their help, and the other half was coldly calculating how to pantomime “shove it!”).
I struggled back home, detached all bags from my bicycle and staggered upstairs to bed after setting my alarm for oh-god-it’s-early o’hundred (5:45am for all your non-military types). Surprisingly I woke up easily the next morning and found it easier to drape myself with garbage half-asleep then mostly awake (perhaps it was the lack of embarrassment since I was too sleep-drunk to notice the early morning factory workers staring at me as I drove down the street).

It was quiet and still as only a pre-dawn morning can be in the suburbs of Japan, and I vaguely wondered if I was the only fool up at 6am dropping crap off in a rice field. As I turned the last corner to the shed, a scene I wasn’t expecting unfolded before my eyes. EVERY FRIGGIN’ PERSON IN THE ENTIRE NEIGHBORHOOD WAS THERE, supervised by what I can only describe as a predatory pride of older men and women who were examining the gomi offerings with the sharp eye of a housewife looking for nits in her fourth youngest son who had been recently rolling around with the neighborhood stray dog.

Seeing me standing there with the stunned look of a deer in the headlights (or maybe the deer seeing the hunter a split second before he fires his shotgun straight into its head) they descended on me. “Over here, over here” is what I think they said to me. They snagged my bags of garbage from my hands and horror of horrors, waggled their fingers at me and declared it a disaster. One bag was ok, they claimed, and whisked it off to the appropriate mountain of similarly-sorted garbage in the far corner. Then, thinking they would do no more then scold me and send me off, they ripped open my bags and starting analyzing the contents O_O to the point where I was scolded for the one PET bottle that I had forgotten to rinse out before depositing. All of my carefully nurtured, washed and stripped recycling was thrown to the four winds as they re-sorted it all into another 5 piles. Plastic bags can’t go in the same bag with Styrofoam, oh no. No, they’re the same material and in the same box on the Poster of the Nine-fold Sorting Path but that doesn’t mean anything! Noooooo! And that bathroom cleaner bottle?! Oh they loved that one. They spent at least 10 minutes debating over it and just what category it belonged in.

I was like, “Gomi wa chotto muzukashi, ne…” and they were like, “Hai, nihonjin mo” but I seriously didn’t believe them. O_O

Conclusion to the story?  The Japanese garbage system is insane.”

~MadSilence the Younger 

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One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Late breaking dumpsters « everydaytrash

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