Does Japan have a plastic trash problem… or solution?

At a rate of 40 million tons of waste per year, Tokyo landfills could fill up in 20 years. Japan is in a tough situation, introducing new recycling schemes.

Japan has been in the top 20 of «green» tech leaders for many decades. Their garbage sorting rules are among the strictest in the world, and people are expected to understand and follow them to the letter.

Such rules help create a country where 1/5th of plastic waste is recycled or repurposed, and most of what remains is burned to generate power or heat.

Perhaps most remarkable in Japanese waste management are Tokyo landfills.

Building a garbage oasis

Japanese have been turning plastic garbage into land since early 1970s, with the tradition going decades into the past. Tokyoites bury their waste under the top layer of soil at various disposal sites. They create new islands from trash.

The newest landfill site, Umi No Mori (Groves on the Ocean), is around 150 hectares. It’s expected to open next year after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This «trash island» has already been layered with soil. It will look like a regular park, with trees and local fauna – from the outside, nobody should be able to tell that this place is built on massive piles of trash.

It’s no surprise that landfills like Umi No Mori fill up so quickly, though. Plastic trash in Japan is generated to the tune of 40+ billion plastic bags per year.

Ticking trash bomb

However effective landfill islands and innovative incineration programs might be, they’re not a sustainable solution. Any further expansions of landfill mass would intervene with shipping lanes and existing infrastructure.

At the current rate of 40 million tons of general waste per year, all of Japanese landfills could be filled in just 20 years. This puts the Japanese into a tough situation, with major recycling schemes being introduced every year.

As one of such initiatives, the government plans to reduce plastic use by 25% by 2030.

Japanese garbage sorting is already notoriously byzantine. It only gets more complicated from here

Will change come soon enough?

Japan has a conservative business community, as well as pro-industrial policies coming from the Ministry of Economy. Despite being ahead of their curve on many environmental initiatives, Japanese plastic production and plastic waste exports are still among the highest in the world.

Meaning that the challenges outlined in this story are only going to escalate.

On that note, citizens of the Japanese town of Kamikatsu took their «Zero Waste» initiative seriously, aiming at 100% recycling target by 2020. Kamikatsu already achieved as much as 80%, by recycling 286 tons of its 2017 waste.

The town couldn’t afford to pay massive incineration costs, so its people committed to recycling and built their lives around it.

Which might just be the kind of heroism Japan needs

If more towns and local governments learn from Kamikatsu, there will be no need for sweeping legislation and expensive disposal schemes.

This kind of «green» consumerism – a dedication to zero waste living – is a choice. Making it takes some getting used to, but comes with the perk of not having to worry about mountains of plastic garbage sweeping the entire country 20 odd years from now.

Wherever we are geographically, there’s a lot to learn from this story – be it high tech government initiatives, or on the ground zero waste living., Japanese teach us what works and what doesn’t.

Sooner or later we all have to face the difficult choices the country has to make this decade.

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