Sorting Out My Trash

MITOYO CITY, Japan—While my host family generally expects me to help with chores around the house, one task is strictly off limits: taking out the trash. “It's just too difficult for foreigners,” she tells me. Perhaps Japan’s strict garbage disposal regulations are as daunting to an outside visitor as Tokyo’s crisscrossed subway map and a writing system with three different alphabets.

In Mitoyo City, where I am interning and living in a home-stay, trash is sorted into 18 categories, which range from burnable waste, to metallic trash, to used tempura oil. City residents divide up their own waste and deliver it to nearby collection stations on designated days. This means that every second Thursday of the month, my host parents transport their plastic waste to the collection site near city hall – except, of course, on the second Thursday of an even-numbered month, during which plastic bottles, and not common plastics, are collected. Before they do this, however, they must drive to the nearby supermarket to purchase city-approved trash disposal bags, without which garbage is not received. Each bag costs 30 Yen. And, of course, they must also be sure to remove plastic coverings and bottle caps (considered common plastics), and remember to wash the bottles thoroughly. They repeat the process on Tuesday, but for burnable waste and recyclable glass.

While originally intended to reduce the amount of landfill waste in land-scarce Japan, these stringent regulations have also managed to reshape many residents’ views about trash and wastefulness. When doing groceries, my host mother seeks products with minimal wrapping—hoping to avoid the hassle of having sort through these later. My host siblings diligently wash out their plastic soda bottles before dumping them in the appropriate bin; they now tend to opt for milk when thirsty—it’s easier to dispose of.

I expected the remoteness of the Japanese countryside to allow me to relax and sort through my thoughts. I certainly did not expect to find myself sorting through my trash. Yet, painstaking as the process is, I find that I, too, am starting to rethink my wasteful ways. At school, I take for granted the blessing that is co-mingled recycling, and too often find myself letting a recyclable or two slip into the trash bag when the appropriate bin is too full or too far. Ironically, the simplicity of trash disposal back home discourages me from being more proactive about recycling. Physically sorting my common plastics and special plastics while in Japan has literally made me grasp the dirty truth: My ways are simply too wasteful and clearly unsustainable.

Kevin Martinez, a Crimson photographer, is a history concentrator in Adams House.