Taking out the trash in Japan

In Japan, taking out the trash is a little… more of a “chore” if you will. You don’t simply have trash and recyclables. Nor is there simply “trash day”. It’s more like…well let me show you...

Recyclables outside in Japan
Recyclables outside of someone's house

Thank you for your patience the past few weeks while I rebranded and did some back end items. All you need to know is that I migrated from Substack to my new website: HAPAのにほん. You may have noticed that the email URL is different. I have moved all your emails to my new website.

For those who took the survey a while ago, many wanted “general life” content. What is a better way to launch a new website than discussing a universal human task— taking out the trash!

Garbage truck workers taking out trash

What isn’t more “general life” than trash?

In Japan, taking out the trash is a little… more of a “chore” if you will. You don’t simply have trash and recyclables. Nor is there simply “trash day”. It’s more like…well let me show you...

Example of trash schedule

Here is a basic translation of the trash and recycling schedule above:

  • Monday: Nothing
  • Tuesday: Burnables
  • Wednesday: Nothing
  • Thursday’s (First and Third of the month): Non burnables
  • Thursday’s: (Second and Fourth): PET bottles
  • Friday: Burnables

Another example…

trash schedule in Japan
  • Monday: Trash (Split into burnables, non burnables, spray cans, and batteries)
  • Tuesday: Recyclable waste (Paper goods)
  • Wednesday: Nothing→ Moved to Saturday
  • Thursday: Plastics
  • Friday: Trash (Split into burnables, non burnables, spray cans, and batteries)
  • Saturday: Cans, Glass bottles, PET bottles, Steel cans

So every area has their own system and it's annoying. Even without understanding Japanese, I think you get the idea.

In elementary school, kids learn about the trash system and about sorting the trash (gomi bunbetsu ゴミ分別. ) I remember having a whole unit about it and learning how different materials were recycled. For example, our milk cartons turned into toilet paper.

Why is Japan's trash system like this?

Japan is an island and subsequently lacks many natural resources. On top of this, Japan is also small – basically around the same size as California or Germany.

Approximate country size of Japan, Germany and California State

Lastly, over 80% of Japan is occupied by mountains. That is not to say you can’t develop land on a mountain, but it does make things a little difficult.

So Japan has a high recycling rate, right?

Actually, no. This was quite surprising to me. If you see below, the rate is around 20%... but instead of sending unrecycled materials to the landfill, they are sent to “incineration with energy recovery.” This is the key point.

OECD-Wate-Disposal Chart

So yes, while Japan has very low recycling rates for a developed country, it has the highest highest incineration rate in OECD countries. Makes sense with the classifications of the garbage disposal categories: burnables.

Definition: “Incineration with recovery of energy refers to the incineration in which evolving thermal energy is used for the production of steam, hot water or electric energy” - OCED

Oh, also there are hardly any trash cans in Japan

You read that right. There are hardly any public trash cans. Basically, due to a domestic terror attack in 1995, public trash cans have been on the decline. To summarize the event...

“The Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult led a series of coordinated chemical weapon attacks on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, which left 12 people dead. More than 1,000 were injured by exposure to the toxic agent...In the immediate aftermath, waste receptacles were sealed and then removed entirely from train stations and many other public spaces throughout Japan.” [as trash cans can be used in terrorist weapons.] -Bloomberg

So this is what triggered the decline. In addition, local governments realized how much money they were saving from not having public trash cans, especially given the complexity of the disposal system. Even after they removed them, it is unlikely that they will be put back.

Do not expect many public trash cans in Japan. You will have to look for them, but they can usually be found in convenience stores and train stations. Please don't leave trash around, like someone did in the bathroom below.

trash schedule in Japan

Ironically, Tokyo is known to be one of the cleanest cities in the world. That is Japanese society for you.

(unsolicited) recommendation #13

This is actually a recommendation you may want to hear. If you are coming to Japan. I highly recommend you bring some small plastic bags and a reusable/eco bag.

  1. Small plastic bags (like those you put vegetables in) can be used to store your trash while you are out and about in Japan
  2. Reusable bags/eco bags since Japan banned plastic bags in 2020. If you don’t have one, it is not the worst thing in the world. You will just end up paying 3-7 yen for a bag (that you can use as a trash bag!)

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