Japan’s zero-waste village is a model of sustainable development for small towns

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The zero-waste center in Kamikatsu, Japan, looks like a special kind of flea market: everything from metal handles and plastic bottle lids to mirrors and thermometers are neatly arranged in a row of yellow baskets.

The bric-a-brac of objects, far from being a disorderly jumble, was carefully collected, sorted and deposited in 45 individual bins by the inhabitants of the city.

“Sorting trash into 45 different categories is a lot harder than you might imagine,” says Hiroshi Nakamurathe architect who designed and built the pioneering space, “but they are ready to do so”.

Built on the site of a former incinerator, the center has become the centerpiece of an ambitious goal: Kamikatsu’s effort to reuse or recycle everything it produces. In doing so, the town of less than 2,000 people, located on the Japanese island of Shikoku, has become a global example of how a community can eliminate waste.

Kamikatsu’s Rise & Win Brewing Co. Photo courtesy of Zero Waste Academy

To begin with, to obtain “zero waste accreditation”, all Kamikatsu businesses must join a strict sustainability ethic which includes training employees on waste reduction and setting measurable goals. The Kuru-kuru store (a Japanese expression meaning “to go around in circles”) offers free second-hand items such as kitchen appliances and tableware, and sells old kimonos, bags and toys recycled by local artisans . A brewery produces craft beer using yuko citrus peels provided by local farmers, who use the juice from the fruit to make sauces and dressings, and in turn receive the brewery’s spent grain for compost. Polestar Cafe serves only organic local produce and offers discounts to customers who bring their own cups of coffee. The Why Hotel, which was built with local cedar wood and discarded doors and windows, invites tourists to experience the city’s zero-waste philosophy. Even the signs in the Zero Waste Center were made from recycled materials.

“We wanted to create an architecture that would be in tune with their behavior and sensitivities, always thinking and acting in a way that allowed them to reuse waste instead of throwing it away,” says architect Nakamura, who also used mortar and spare ceramics. pieces of flooring to make plaster.

“Transforming waste into a resource”

Kamikatsu’s goal of disposing of waste without resorting to incinerators or landfills was set in 2003, when it launched the nonprofit Zero Waste Academy and becomes the first municipality in Japan to do a “Zero Waste” statement. While the city has so far fallen short of this lofty goal, originally set for 2020, Kamikatsu recycled 81% of all its waste in 2020, according to the Ministry of Environment. Datacompared to 58.6% in 2008, and much more than Japan’s national average of 20%.

“It’s about how we can transform now to have a sustainable life in the future,” says Akira Sakano, Founder and Director of japan zero waste and former president of Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Academy. “We thought of developing Kamikatsu as a model and experience for others to learn and follow.”

Only a few types of waste are now incinerated – such as PVC and disposable nappies – but even that is being treated. Since 2017, Kamikatsu has given away “reusable”cloth diaper starter kits» to households with children up to the age of one.

As a result, Kamikatsu has cut its incineration costs by a third and now brings in up to three million yen (about US$21,000) a year from the sale of recycled materials like paper or metals. These revenues cover a very good proportion of the six million yen spent each year on waste management.

“I think Kamikatsu is a very special case,” says Misuzu Asari, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies. “Although the population is small, they have been endowed with enthusiastic human resources and have been able to receive subsidies from the national government effectively. It shows that if you do it thoroughly, you can ultimately turn waste into a resource. »

The Kamikatsu Recycling Center. “It was difficult because it changed their daily tasks, but people got used to it.” Credit: Zero Waste Center

The roots of Kamikatsu’s reuse revolution go back decades. During Japan’s post-war economic boom, the expansion of mass industry created huge amounts of waste, which increased from 6.2 million tons in 1955 to 43.9 million tons in 1980. In response, municipalities across Japan, including Kamikatsu, have started building incinerators to get rid of it all. But over time, concern grows about the pollution created. “Kamikatsu’s transformation started because she couldn’t incinerate or send things to the landfill anymore,” Sakano explains. “There had to be a change.”

This change took years: in 1997, the city began recycling in nine different categories, and the following year that number grew to 22. In 2001, Kamikatsu closed its large incinerators and began recycling in 35 categories. It reached the current 45 categories in 2016 and the construction of the Zero Waste Center was completed in 2020.

Since door-to-door collection would be expensive – Kamikatsu’s 55 hamlets are spread over a large area dominated by forested mountains – the city decided to require residents to deposit their waste at the center. Those who cannot get around, such as elderly residents, can arrange pick-ups.

Initially, the implementation was met with resistance. For some residents, preparing and sorting waste was a struggle: a plastic water bottle must be washed and stripped of its label and lid; glass should be separated by color; everything from thermometers to chopsticks and printer cartridges needs to be sorted. Yet over time they have been conquered, partly thanks to the fact that they are points awarded for recycling which can be exchanged for ecological products. “It was difficult because it changed their daily tasks,” says Sakano. “But people got used to it.”

These efforts intersect with the traditional Japanese concept of “mottainai,” which rebukes waste and advocates respect for the planet’s finite resources. Credit: Zero Waste Center

Beyond promoting recycling, the program also encourages behavioral change. The city works with local manufacturers to help reduce waste and advises residents to avoid using single-use items or, if necessary, to purchase products that can be disposed of easily. The sheer effort required to deal with waste, meanwhile, is seen as a deterrent to excessive consumption.

Personalized recycling

Since 2020, Zero Waste Japan has focused on spreading environmentally friendly policies to local governments across the country. Other Japanese cities such as Minamata in Kumamoto Prefecture and Ikaruga in Nara Prefecture are already on board.

Now, Sakano works in Obuse, a city in northwestern Japan, helping the municipality implement waste reduction policies. For example, agriculture is an important part of the local economy and growing apples, chestnuts and pears sometimes requires cutting down trees. While previously burned, the city is experimenting with using small machines to create biochar, a soil amendment that sequesters a large amount of carbon. “We try to tailor the policies to each location,” she says.

According to Sakano, Zero Waste Japan, whose work is funded either directly by municipalities and companies or through environmental partners, is needed to move from Kamikatsu to all of Japan. 1,700 municipalities. “The challenges at each location will be different,” she says. “I can’t get into all of them. But how to build policy is the same: how to reduce waste and circulate resources locally?

These efforts overlap with the traditional Japanese concept of “mottainai”, which rebukes waste and espouses respect for the world’s finite resources – a philosophy that has itself been recycled for a modern era.

“We aim to spread a way of life that does not burden the global environment and build a sustainable society by strengthening the circular economy,” says Akira Yamaguchi from Mottainai Campaigna project launched in 2005 to promote the philosophy and organize flea markets, symposia and Mount Fuji clean-up tours.

Professor Misuzu Asari says progress has been made nationwide through the introduction of individual product recycling laws, advances in thermal recycling technology and improved waste sorting.

But there is still a long way to go. Japan, known for its hygienic packaging culture, is the second largest producer of packaging waste worldwide, its citizens using up to 450 plastic bags each year. Globally, the production of plastic waste more than doubled between 2000 and 2019 to 353 million tonnes.

“These days, there are still a lot of things that are excessive, unnecessary and disposable,” says Asari. “We need to change our mindset to reduce them. We must now move towards achieving a sustainable circular economy.

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