In most countries other than Japan, throwing away trash is pretty simple. Garbage is garbage, and that’s the end of unwanted items. Just put them in any container and bid goodbye to your waste. Although some efforts have been made in other countries to separate rubbish to a certain extent, such as cardboard or food waste, throwing away garbage is still relatively simple and doesn’t take up too much of your time and effort.
Most foreigners who come to Japan for the first time are often surprised (and sometimes perplexed) by the very systematic and precise separation and disposal of garbage in the Japanese recycling system. Each city has its own rules, so you have to be careful but, in general, the rules are pretty similar. This article is a guide on how to separate garbage in Japan and the rules that come with it, the categories of trash, and what kinds of garbage fit into those categories.
In Japan, garbage is basically categorized into four different types. Each type has its own collection date. Do your best to organize your trash and put them in the correct categories by keeping several trash cans in your apartment, if possible. Pay special attention to the collection days so that you don’t end up missing it and have to keep your trash in your house for another week!
Combustible trash or burnable trash, which is collected twice a week, includes paper (wastepaper, kitchen roll, diapers), plastic bags and wrappers (food wrappers, gift wrappers, candy wrappers, grocery bags), rubber and leather (bags, shoes, slippers, boots), tubes and other plastic containers (toothpaste containers, cooking oil containers, soy sauce containers, ketchup containers, margarine containers, yogurt containers).
Collected once a month, non-burnable trash includes long plastics (plastic cords, hoses, rope), ceramic wares (teacups, plates, flower pots), metals, glass (flower vases, eyeglasses), and small appliances (flat irons, radio cassettes, rice cookers).
3. Oversized Garbage
This includes home furniture such as cupboards, bookshelves, sofas, beds, tables, and others, over 50-centimeter long stuffed toys, bicycles, below 60cc motorcycles, electric fans, vacuum cleaners, carpets, and bedding.
4. Bottles and Cans
This trash is generally collected twice a month. Bottles include empty glass containers (caps must be removed), tin cans, and aluminum cans. These must be put in separate garbage bags, or you can deposit them in the provided boxes as they are. “Pet” bottles, which are plastic drinks bottles (with the number 1 inside a triangle symbol) must also be in a separate garbage bag with their caps removed, washed, cleaned, and compressed (you can do this by stepping on them).
- Designated garbage bags are classified into colors (each city has different colors) and are sold in supermarkets and convenience stores. Make sure to use the correct ones. It can be time-consuming but it’s fine if you stay on top of it.
- Garbage collection dates, collection areas, and collection rules differ depending on the area. There is usually a guide above where the garbage is collected showing which days what type of trash is collected. Plan accordingly, and make sure all your trash is in the correct bags and ready to go the night before the collection day.
- There is a specific fee to throw away broken televisions, air conditioners, washing machines, refrigerators, and other pieces of oversized garbage. Generally, the larger the item, the higher the fee will be. For example, in Shibuya, Tokyo, it is 400 yen for the disposal of a chair, 1200 yen for a bed mattress, and 2000 yen for a sofa. You are also required to apply a sticker to the item to prove you have paid for its removal. You can apply for waste disposal in your local community by phone or at your nearest city office. For more information on oversized waste disposal in Tokyo, click here.
- Used cooking oil must be hardened and thrown away as combustible garbage. It should not be poured down the sink because it gets thick and can block the drain.
- Using the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) is highly encouraged. If something can be reused, then reuse it! For example, old cardboard gift boxes can be great to store your stationery, makeup, or hair accessories. Large cardboard boxes can be kept in case you move house or need to transport a lot of items. Cardboard toilet rolls can even be used as toys for a pet hamster!
- The trash collection time varies, but it can be anything from 8:00am to 10:00am. Make sure to take out the trash before the scheduled time, or you might miss it and have to wait another week or so. You can get up very early or take it out the night before. However, it is recommended you take it out the morning of collection, as some communities provide boxes for things like cans and bottles, and they may not be taken out the evening before.
- Some areas require you to write your name on the trash bag before you put it in the collection area. Double-check the local rules and use a black permanent marker to clearly write your name. If trash is put out on the wrong date or there is some problem with the contents, the landlord will have to give it back to you. However, if you follow the above rules, that is very unlikely to happen.
Aside from your personal waste disposal in your home, you can always take advantage of supermarkets and convenience stores which allow you to dispose of packaging in-store. This is a great idea and saves you a bit of time and space having to dispose of it from your house.
In many supermarkets now, there are recycle bins right next to the checkouts. So, for example, when you have sorted your shopping, feel free to unwrap some of the packaging and throw it away there and then. This saves clogging up your garbage bin bags (which aren’t that cheap!) and just gives you a little less work. Convenience stores also have trash cans you can use.
One thing to be aware of in Japan is that people take garbage disposal very seriously. Residents make a concerted effort to ensure they are disposing of their waste correctly, and expect it from each other, too. So, if you live in, or are moving to, Japan, you might want to be observant of your own disposal habits if you want to stay on the right side of your neighbors.
Another thing to remember is that if you fail to separate your trash correctly, there’s every chance it will be ‘refused’. Waste collection workers will put a rather noticeable red sticker onto your trash bag, which will be seen by your neighbors, stating that your trash can’t be accepted. This is a real hassle, so try to get it right first time!
Finally, if you really couldn’t care less about separating trash correctly, and if you repeatedly don’t do it, you may well get a complaint from neighbors. This is known to have happened before and could lead to the police being called or your landlord finding out and threatening action. Like I said, this is serious business in Japan!
So, do try to be mindful of the importance of this in Japan. There will likely be consequences for not abiding by the rules, and aside from this, it’s better for the environment and goes some way to redressing the fact that Japan has a real problem with excessive packaging and really does need to recycle.
For international students who are staying in Japan for a couple of months or years, universities conduct orientations about life in Japan and that includes how to properly dispose of garbage. This is so the universities can make sure that their students are adapting to their new life well. Be sure to follow the rules you are given.
When you move into a new apartment, you will receive a booklet from your landlord on the proper garbage disposal in your area. It may seem a bit confusing to follow at first, but once you get used to it, it is no sweat at all. In the end, it will give you a sense of pride for being a part of a clean Japan. Make space for your garbage, maybe buy a separate trash can, and think carefully before you throw anything away!
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