Talking Trash


Originally published on on May 2010

I’ve always had a hard time remembering to check my pockets for wrappers, tissues and other trash before throwing laundry in the wash. All too often, when I go to retrieve what should be clean clothes smelling of “spring flowers,” “summer rain” or “mountain air,” the soothing artificial scent is there, but so are a million little wadded-up balls of paper or plastic.

What’s bothered me since coming to Japan is that this has been happening more often. Not because of my increasing absentmindedness, but because my pockets contain more trash. And I finally figured out why: it’s because of Japan’s utterly frustrating lack of public trashcans.

I mean, what is it with this place? There’s something wrong when you feel like rejoicing because you’re lucky enough to come across the one public toilet out of ten that has a place to throw away a dirty tissue. Or feel guilty because you stuffed a wadded-up McDonald’s bag into the bottle-recycling bin next to the vending machine, as it was the next best alternative to throwing it on the street. Or surreptitiously use the area under your seat at karaoke as a dumping station for the bundle of trash you’ve been carrying around for the last three hours.

In fact, it is so hard to find public garbage cans in this country that the few places that do have them, like convenience stores, end up taking on the role of “Japan’s Public Trashcan” in much the same way that McDonald’s functions as “America’s Public Restroom.” So it’s not surprising that my pockets end up stuffed with more trash than they would otherwise. After all, it’s a better alternative than littering.

Other countries with organized waste policies promote the availability of garbage cans in public places, with the simple idea being that it encourages people to throw things away properly, rather than on the street (or the bottle-recycling bin). In developing nations, such facilities are usually limited due to a lack of tax revenue. Yet for some reason, even though Japan makes enormous amounts of public money available for managing municipal waste—as evidenced by the country’s truly intricate recycling programs and the “garbage Nazis” that zealously enforce them—it’s notoriously difficult to find a public “dust box.”

So, lack of funding is not the issue. Instead, I’m told, the thinking goes like this: by limiting the number of public trashcans, you encourage people to “manage their garbage.” Some companies even limit the number of on-premises trashcans in order to be more “Eco” (and possibly save a few yen in disposal fees), to the consternation of employees who have to take their bento with them in the morning and their garbage home at night.

Let’s give credit where it is due: Japan produces the least solid waste per capita of all industrialized nations. So obviously, they’re doing something right. No doubt that the high recycling rate has something to do with it—Japan ranks number one in the world in terms of recycling plastic.

Yet, consistent with the Japanese idea of “continuous improvement,” there are certainly some areas that could benefit from a rethink.

Illustration by Enrique Balducci

For example, just take a look at all of the individually wrapped vegetables in the grocery store—the ones that really get me are three carrots packed both in plastic wrap and a plastic tray. Or how about elaborately wrapping gifts lest your gesture be seen as ill-conceived and offensive?

Simply recycling plastic and packaging is not a cure-all—it is far better to reduce the production of waste in the first place. So rather than making it exceptionally difficult to throw away trash, why not put more emphasis on reducing the production of what becomes garbage in the first place? How about encouraging sales of bulk, unwrapped produce in the grocery store? How about returning to the use of furoshiki rather than plastic and paper bags for gift-giving? How about mandating the use of less plastic and individual wrapping and encouraging genuine reuse while at the same time making more public garbage cans available?

Not only would these practices decrease the frustration level in a country where people are stretched to their limits by the pressures of modern life, it would result in less litter in public areas. Because hey, even in Japan, people aren’t perfect.