The Japanese system of garbage disposal is complex, lovely and confusing to the average outsider. Even before setting a foot on soil in The Land of the Rising Sun, I’d heard my fair share of horror stories. Assistant Language Teachers, the position I would soon be stepping into, were occasionally admonished and embarrassed by other residents, teachers, and city officials alike for inadequate separation, bagging and bundling of the various components. Beyond that, nosey neighbors, especially the elderly ones with plenty of time on their hands, were known to poke disapprovingly through the discarded items and spread about all sorts of juicy gossip about garbage items unearthed. Trash collection, the most mundane of all activities, actually appeared to be an unexpected cause of angst for many ALTs. Were people just overreacting?
Months later, I arrived in my new Japanese hometown. Lunch with one of two new vice-principals survived, arrival paperwork signed, important officials at the city county building greeted, bank account opened, and head spinning, Hongo-sensei, drove me to my new home. Nearly in a daze, I unlocked the door for the very first time and stepped into a tiny tiled entryway. There I awkwardly eased throbbing feet out of painful black dress-up heels and tripped gracelessly into a neatly waiting pair of plastic guest slippers left by my predecessor. I crossed the tiny kitchen nook in two steps and peered into the one-room studio apartment. It was larger than I’d expected, honestly, and older but more modern. The floor was covered with worn tan carpet. My gaze grazed over an odd blue cross between a large couch and bed, one dresser, a small bookshelf, a tv, a kotatsu, a plain square table… What was that on top of it? A colorful array of neatly folded blue, yellow and pink garbage bags and a large full-color illustrated pamphlet addressing the all-important subject of trash disposal.
Ah, yes. Trash day. I’d almost forgotten.
I flipped through the booklet and stared in horrified fascination at the cutesy illustrated drawings. Hongo-sensei went on to explain that there were not stationary, designated bins for most of these items-only one for the burnable garbage and it was usually locked. I couldn’t just load up a bag and take it down to the dumpster at any old time. No, indeed not. The tiny lobby in front of my elevator, she expounded, was transformed each week into a hub for garbage disposal. Every wall was labeled with paper signs, each indicating a particular type of trash, and the apartment occupants stacked their corresponding disposables below the signage.
“Trash day is Monday. Put trash out before you leave to school. Or Sunday night. It is in the place in front of the elevator, you remember? The keeper of the apartment building will put out signs, but the kanji will be difficult for you to read… Maybe look at the other trash from your neighbors. You will learn.” Hongo-sensei smiled apologetically with somewhat tired eyes, but I got the sense that this was an important thing to get right. This was a way to respect nature, respect my new neighbors, respect my host country, and properly represent my new schools. And in Japan, respect is a key word, a unifying quality. Yes, it was yet another thing to remember, but as I pondered the subject, my appreciation for the Japanese sense of responsibility grew, and I mentally vowed to do my part.
After Hongo-sensei left, I studied the booklet intently.
The small, thicker blue bags were collected weekly and designed to hold burnable or decomposable trash: food garbage (drained of any liquids before disposal), scraps of non-recyclable paper (tissues, toilet paper rolls, paper diapers, etc.), wood scraps (such as pencils and disposable chopsticks), old clothing, bits of burnable plastic (plastic twine, Saran wrap, tape…), leather and rubber (with all metal removed beforehand and appropriately recycled, of course).
The yellow bags were for completely clean plastic (bags, cups, squeeze bottles, heavier plastic wraps, tofu packages, plastic bottles, lids, soap pumps, foam trays and PET bottles).
The pink bags? Those would hold steel and aluminum cans and glass bottles.
And the colored bags were just the first step!
Paper packaging (wrappers, shopping bags, tissue boxes, cracker boxes), the pamphlet delineated, should be stacked neatly inside a paper bag.
Cardboard (broken down and flattened), newspapers, books and magazines should be stacked in piles with their own kind, and each separate pile bound securely with twine.
Milk cartons also needed to be washed well, cut open, allowed to dry and bundled together in a similar fashion.
Batteries must be placed in a designated box, or taken to a collection bin in certain stores.
Non-burnables (certain bottles, spray cans, metallic items, and specified glass items), ceramics (broken ceramics should be wrapped in paper to prevent injury while being handled), plastic products such as toys, umbrellas and buckets, PVC products (plastic wrap and gloves), and miscellaneous items, needed to be placed in a clear plastic bag.
Small electronics were to be set under the appropriate signage for rubbish collection.
But even THAT wasn’t the end! The copious instructions continued, clarifying that certain items would only be collected at set points during the year. These included: Items able to be deconstructed for parts (DVD players, sewing machines, fax machines, etc.), scrap metal (bicycles, microwaves, space heaters, chairs), textiles (sheets, bath towels, and sarashi), mercury-containing items (fluorescent bulbs, thermometers, mirrors), and large plastic items (kotatsu tops, snow shovels, carseats).
Lastly, some items (refrigerators, freezers, TVs, air conditioning units, washing machines, and computers) must NEVER be set outside; they should, instead, be transported to specific recycling centers.
The system made sense. Given the size of the small island nation, landfills were rare; most decomposable waste was incinerated and recycling was taken seriously. Gone forever, I could already tell, were my days of mindlessly dumping all items into one bag and tossing it out in a single can for garbage day pickup. I would learn the fine art of proper trash disposal!
A few weeks passed in my new home. Then a few months sneaked by. The wild blur of chaotic newness started to subside. Settling into a routine with schools, shopping, language study, cultural emersion, and home time, I began to grasp some sense of the pace and flow of life and work in Japan. Tomorrow, I knew, was trash day. By now I practically had the complex garbage disposal system down to a science! Well, except for missing trash days. That did happen last week. I’d been traveling during the weekend and running late on a rainy Monday morning, so I’d missed trash day entirely. A repeat might spell calamity for the tiny kitchen/walkway; if the monstrous mound of colorful bags and twine-tied bundles continued to chew away at precious kitchen space, meal preparation would grind to a complete halt. My rice cooker sat sadly beside my bathroom door; there was no practical way to make it fit into the kitchenette. Besides that, the burnables might start stinking, and that would be unbearable. No excuses. The garbage had to go out tonight, and it would take several trips to transport the assorted items to their intended destinations.
Late though it was, I began the task with two small blue bags of burnable garbage, filled mostly with food scraps. Glancing to my left at the panoramic view of my peaceful city tucked in bed under its black blanket, I hurried down the balcony hallway, tapped the “down” button to the right of the finicky elevator door, and listened to the slow rumble and click of the wakening lift as it came to life. It was rare in my apartment building to have elevator company, especially late at night, so when the tired old doors lazily creaked open, I stepped inside before bothering to evaluate the situation and apply any appropriate elevator etiquette. There was, I quickly discovered, a stylish young couple also crammed within. Embarrassed, I attempted to hold the garbage bags a bit more discreetly. Impossible. Much to my chagrin, a horrid stench rose and poisoned the air in the phone booth-sized room. Internally, I let loose a mortified groan. I know it had been a couple weeks, but I had no idea my trash smelled so rancid! The man stole a furtive glance at me then reached his hand to his nose rather discreetly, but none of us were fooled. All hope that this smell may simply be a figment of my overactive imagination evaporated. A humorous comment or apologetic explanation was out of the question; my Japanese language abilities were far too elementary! Instead, I passed the time staring intently at floor indicator display and mentally counting down…5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
When the doors finally opened, I gave a quick bow, offered an apologetic “sumimasen,” and bolted from the elevator. In record time I tossed the offending bags in the bin, and lingered there for a few moments trying to avoid a second awkward encounter with my neighbors. After an extended pause, I turned around to go and nearly collided with the poor couple, patiently, quietly standing behind me, waiting in line to toss their own small blue bag of VERY smelly garbage.
(Edited slightly from it’s original posted on my old blog, Interim Arts, on August 2, 2014. )