How to Recycle in Japan
Saturday, October 5, 2019
Tips to living more eco conscious in Japan
Recycling and garbage sorting in Japan has given many an expat (and Japanese person) a Fuji sized headache at one time or another. The difficulty arises from not only the range of categories garbage is sorted into but the variety of rules across municipalities. Given the array of garbage sorting rules over the nation this article cannot be fully comprehensive but should serve as a guide to help you get your trash properly sorted with limited hair-pulling.
Public Garbage Collection
No matter where you are located in Japan, your recycling endeavors should begin with research. Every municipality has its own set of sorting rules also has a pamphlet with images that give a pretty detailed outline of what types of garbage go together and when they should be put out. This is usually available online in pdf format like this, if you’re lucky it will be available in English, if not, try searching in Japanese using your area name plus garbage separation (gomi bunbetsu ゴミ分別) or go to your city hall or ward office and ask for a garbage separation guide (gomi bunbetsu tebikisho ごみ分別手引書). The next part of your environment saving journey will cost you a bit more than time, you probably need to buy some garbage bags. Generally there are designated bags for garbage that you can purchase at your local supermarket, pharmacy or convenience store, in some areas one bag is used for all types of garbage and in others there are different bags for specific types of garbage.
After doing the prep work it’s time to move on to the actual sorting. Japan has a range of categories for recycling, more categories mean stricter rules for every category so at a quick glance your areas guide should tell you just how much time you’re about to put into sorting per week.
The major classifications are burnable (燃える/ 燃やす/ 可燃 ごみ) and non-burnable garbage (燃えない/ 燃やさない/ 不燃ごみ). The fewer categories a municipality employs the wider the scope of burnable garbage, non-burnable garbage however, by nature of the breadth of the term, is always more complex.
Burnable Garbage 燃えるごみ
This includes general household waste, kitchen waste and bathroom waste. Kitchen waste should be drained of excess liquid, cooking oil should be soaked up with a cloth or solidified (oil hardening powder for this purpose is sold at supermarkets).
Paper Waste 古紙
This includes newspapers, loose paper, cardboard, books and magazines; they should be bundled (and flattened in the case of boxes) and tied with string. Old fabric and cloth is usually put out with paper waste, they should be thrown out in clear plastic bags.
Kitchen Scraps and Garden Waste are sometimes collected on their own. If not specified they can be disposed with burnable garbage.
Non-Burnable Garbage 燃えないごみ
Can include plastic wrappings and containers, bottles, ceramic and glass objects, small metal items including pots or pans and in some cases small appliances. Broken glass, ceramics or sharp objects should be wrapped in paper and placed in a bag labeled dangerous (kiken 危険).
Plastic Containers and Wrappings プラスチック
This classification includes plastic trays, packages, bags, Styrofoam, non-PET plastic bottles and wrappings. These items are usually conveniently marked with a (プラ) symbol. In cases where there is no designation for these items and no dedicated non-burnable designation these items can be disposed with burnable garbage.
Cans, Glass Bottles, PET Bottles 缶, ビン, ペットボトル
This category is pretty straightforward. The only note here is that items should be rinsed out and labels, caps and covers removed and sorted appropriately.
Gas cartridges and spray cans are usually collected with non-burnable but in a separate bag, verify whether or not you need to make a hole in the cans before throwing them out, it varies. Batteries and fluorescent bulbs are either collected with ‘hazardous waste’ or the nearest available designation. Bulbs must be put back into their original packaging and only small, non-rechargeable batteries are collected by the city.
Oversized Garbage 粗大ごみ
Most municipalities have a few days a month (or year) where furniture and larger items can be collected without charge. There are limits to what can be put out depending on the size and type of article. Many cities also offer a collection service for larger items that requires calling into the center, setting an appointment for collection then purchasing a sticker from the convenience store to affix to the item. In more rural areas that don’t offer this service there is usually a recycle center where these items are taken and drivers that can be hired directly to come collect them.
Private Recycling Services
There are also options outside of city disposal some of which could put money into your pockets instead of costing you.
Electronic stores and Home Centers such as Kohnan (コーナン）and electronic stores offer a removal service for large electronics like refrigerators, air conditioners and televisions. Kohnan also accepts will accept smaller used items like electric fans, planters, and fire extinguishers in exchange for purchasing a new item at their store. When you purchase a new item from them, though in some cases you have to pay a recycling charge and in others you can make a few yen for appliances in good working order. Most Kohnan stores also offer accept used frypans and other cookware for free. You just have to drop it off at their store.
Joshin, offers similar removal services for large electronics when purchasing a new item at their store. However, for smaller electronics they will accept anything if it's simply brought to their store.
Yamada Denki, K's Denki and Bic Camera have recycling bins for used batteries and Yamada Denki also has a Green Project where they donate ¥10 for ever printer ink cartridge that has been collected in their stores.
While Craigslist doesn’t enjoy the same popularity in Japan as it does in other countries in bigger cities you can still find buyers for items you no longer need. More locally, Yahoo Auctions and applications like merkari and jimotei can be used to resell or give away (by pricing at 0 yen) items that are still in usable conditions.
Second Hand Stores
Most people are familiar with the Book Off stores that take old books, CDs and DVDs, but to get the biggest bang for one’s recycling buck you should get to know all the members of the OFF family. Second Street also buys a wide variety of goods, including appliances, furniture and housewares.
There’s a wide selection of nationwide thrift stores such as Don Don Down and countless local thrift stores where you can make a buck while getting rid of clothes that are still in usable condition. The real trouble comes when items are ready to head to that big laundry basket in the sky, but there are options. Uniqlo stores have donation boxes that accept all Uniqlo clothing which is then separated for either reuse or recycling into industrial fibers. The King Family chain buys older items by the kilogram and recycles unsellable items as well. Mode-Off and Hard-Off stores buy items that are worse for the wear for 1 yen and send the unsellable ones out for recycling.
A good way to ensure your items don't end up in landfills is to donate them. Mottainai Japan accepts all kinds of items that will either be donated or exchanged for money to support global causes. Also there are several facebook groups where you can sell or giveaway your used items to other foreigners coming into Japan and may need them. The Mottainai Japan Facebook group (different from the NPO above) Mottainai Osaka, Mottainai Nagoya, and Sayonara Sale Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka, all try to connect people to giveaway or sell their items so they don't go to waste.
Sorting, recycling and disposing of garbage in Japan can be a challenge so be sure to limit the garbage you collect in the first place by refusing excess when you can. Proactively, one can also inquire about recycling services when making purchases, quite a few businesses in Japan offer recycling services for their own products but these services are not well advertised.
Don’t despair though, with time the disposal and recycling process will become second nature and your garbage worries will fade away… Until it’s time to move, good luck with that one (your futon counts as oversized garbage by the way)!
About the Author
Based in Kansai where I spend my days complaining about the weather regardless of season. Otherwise, I'm enjoying the wild ride that is living in Japan until it bucks me or until another steed calls.