The complex world of Japanese waste management

I recently got back from a two week holiday in Japan.  The first week was spent snowboarding up north and the second week was in the madness that is Tokyo.  In both, I encountered confusing, and strangely strict, recycling rules that were difficult to follow and seemed to change from region to region.


In the house that a big group of us had rented at the snow, we were asked to separate our recycling into cans, bottles, food waste and other.  Simple enough.  Around the ski resort bins were separated into ‘combustible’ and ‘other’.  And then when we got down to Tokyo, we had four pages of instructions in the AirBnB welcome pack about what needs to be separated and how to do it.  Rubbish was collected on our street every day, but I couldn’t see any difference in the trucks driving around and they all seemed to lump rubbish bags together without any apparent distinction between bags.  Other than crates of cans and bottles that were loaded up separately.  Who knows where those crates came from.  It was incredibly confusing.

There are a lot of articles out there which go into the complicated nature of recycling in Japan in much more depth than I would be able to having been there for just one week.  I found this one interesting.

But it’s an important topic.  Because there are vending machines dotted (spray-painted) all around the streets of Tokyo.  Everything comes in plastic.  Individually wrapped goodies are ubiquitous, and when you buy a single plasticked thing, it gets placed in a plastic bag.  And having seen what I’ve seen in the Philippines, this was naturally a bit distressing.

The Rockefeller Foundation has two Japanese cities within its 100 Resilient Cities programme; Kyoto and Toyama.  I didn’t visit either, but the Toyama Resilience Strategy is probably reflective of other Japanese city priorities.  They celebrate their existing waste management practices, and point out that individuals take ownership of their role in keeping the city clean.  But from a municipal level they also discuss grander plans and highlight the importance of the development of the city’s waste to energy industry.   “With city incentives, seven different companies now turn “waste” into usable products at the EcoTown Industrial Park, started in 2002. An extensive waste recycling education center increases citizen awareness of the methods and importance of waste recycling.” [Source] . They also point out the importance of incorporating waste reduction and recycling principles into education programmes and messaging.

Layout of Toyama Eco-Town [Source: Toyama Resilience Strategy]
Layout of Toyama Eco-Town [Source: Toyama Resilience Strategy]
What they don’t seem to do is look at reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place.  It all seems to focus on waste management, recycling, combustion, landfill.  There doesn’t seem to be any emphasis on rethinking packaging of products in Japan.  Talking to manufacturers.  Rethinking the need for wrapping up Pocky chocolate sticks (yum) into two separate packets within one single box.

We felt plastic sick by the time we got home.  And considering how much work each individual is expected to do in their day to day household recycling, and the social pressure that seems to be experienced at this domestic level, it’s not clear if any of that pressure is being directed upwards.  Both at the regulators and at the suppliers.

Asia has a lot to answer for with plastic consumption.  And Japan has enough resources to find a suitable response.

Sustainable resource consumption in small, remote communities

The City of Cape Town has released a couple of versions of the Smart Living Handbook.  The aim of this book is to provide some tools and information on ways that Capetonians can change their actions and habits to live more sustainably.  It is divided up into four main themes; waste, energy, water and biodiversity.  I think I’ve talked about it on Energy Ramblings before, but I’ve been mulling over it a bit during the last few weeks of my travels.

I met with an NGO called People and the Sea (PatS) last week when in Malapascua, and this week, while in El Nido, I have been staying with a couple who have been involved in community upliftment activities here.  Many of the environmental and societal challenges that are being faced here are reminiscent of those faced in Cape Town.  People living in extreme poverty, necessitating the over-exploitation of the natural environment and prioritising the need to live over the protection of fragile ecosystems.  Absolutely understandable but no less difficult to observe as an outsider.

A woman with one flip flop on walked past me last night, holding a piece of paper, asking for assistance.  The paper read only “Imagine how I am living.”  Possibly one of the most powerful that I have seen; asking for empathy, perhaps, over money.

So this has me thinking about how the four themes of the Smart Living Handbook could apply around the world, in these small communities.  An academic exercise perhaps, but one that could possibly be of help to those looking to embed themselves within communities and invest their time in addressing issues that I get to flit past on my travels.


A few years back I was venting about the littering habits of people in South Africa, and that this seems to be a trend repeated the world over.  A friend of mine responded by pointing out that nothing will change without giving people access to education and a way out of poverty.  At the time, filled with righteous indignation, I scoffed and probably said something stupid and spoilt in response.  His comment stuck with me though, and has been playing on my mind as I travel through some parts of the world where there is a clear deficit of wealth and access to education.

There is waste everywhere in the Philippines.  Plastic on the beaches, on the paths, in the water, blowing in the wind.  Plastic, plastic, plastic.  I’ve found it incredibly upsetting, and my husband and I have climbed out of the water after a dive or snorkel with handfuls of rubbish.

Part of me thinks that addressing how waste is handled is one of the hardest activities in a small and remote community.  The type of waste is symptomatic of some of the living constraints experienced.  As pointed out by Axelle at PatS, local houses are small, and there is not much space for storage containers.  Containers themselves cost money, and they are not a priority if there’s not space for them in the first place.  The result of this is that consumable products are sold in tiny sachets.  Milo, washing powder, soup, shampoo, pretty much everything that people with space would have stored in big containers in their vast pantry or bathroom cupboard.  They’re also cheap, and easy to purchase with the few pesos that may be going spare at any particular time.  The ‘buy in bulk, safe in bulk‘ concept is one of unexpected privilege.

And it’s these sachets that I’ve been fishing out of the ocean.

Plastic is part of the culture here too.  Axelle told a story of being served a meal on a plate with a plastic bag over it so that the bag could get thrown away to avoid the need for washing the plate.  They were also offered bags for the hands so that they wouldn’t get their hands dirty.  The concepts of single-use and disposal of items are therefore strongly embedded.

Lastly, the handling, removal and treatment of waste requires infrastructure and sustained municipal services.  From the suitable placement of bins to the utilities required for the removal of waste and the ultimate treatment of waste (recycling/waste to energy/landfill).   The cost of the services is not negligible and they are therefore missing in a lot of these communities.  On Boracay, which is a big town, catering to loads of tourists, there were no bins on the beach.  In the smaller communities we have seen rubbish heaped on the beach because there is nowhere else to put it.   Any wind or storm naturally whips the rubbish into the ocean.

So what can be done?  It’s an enormous hill to climb, and it needs to be climbed the world over, with massive effort in distributed, small communities.  The scale of the issue is ginormous and not to be solved in a day.  I’ve jotted down some thoughts on possible actions (warning: I am aware that they are super simplistic, made to sound quick and easy, and they would naturally need to be fleshed out and tailored to suit the community at hand, but this is, after all, just a short thought piece):

  1. community engagement on the impact of waste on the environment, and on the economic sustainability of the community (massive waste → reduced tourism  → less community income)
  2. identification and classification of the type and proportion of waste items being generated
  3. assessment of current disposal methods and habits
  4. user separation of useful waste (especially organic waste)
  5. user separation of hazardous waste and the identification of methods of dealing with this waste
  6. establishment of accessible bins
  7. engagement with municipality over waste collection (not easy)
  8. engagement with communities over possible substitution of products to minimise resulting waste (could the distribution of storage containers make any difference?)
  9. periodic clean up programmes by the community – good for removing waste but also keeping the waste issue in the collective consciousness and possibly showing the positive impact that other programmes may be having, to keep up energy levels and commitment
  10. distribution of education materials in local schools / education programmes focused on students, instilling good habits from an early age

Side note – clearly I’m considering only solid waste and not waste water.  This is another aspect relating to a community’s resilience, important to consider, but not covered in this post.


As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, many households here don’t have access to electricity.  If they do, a number of these houses are built with wood, boards and woven natural materials (roofs included).  Not suitable for roof mounted solar modules (particularly during stormy seasons).  I have, however, seen a lot of micro-scale renewables installations in the remote villages in the Philippines.  Tiny solar panels, connected to a battery and a light.  Or solar panels connected to street lights.

I’m not going to spend too much time on energy, because it has been discussed a lot and there are a lot of programmes focused on just this, so here in short are some small energy interventions I have come across which may be suitable for small, remote communities:

  1. solar powered portable LED lights as mentioned above – like the Waka Waka lamp.
  2. The coke bottle light (Moser light) is an incredibly cheap and easy option, good for lighting dark households in dense communities during the day
  3. A spin off of this light is the Liter of Light, which has open sourced a solar street light technology, also making use of soda bottles.
  4. For places doing any kind of pot / stewing cooking (rice, curries, lentils etc), products like the Hot Box, known by various names depending on the manufacturer, is an eco cooker, using the thermal insulation properties of polystyrene, or the like, to cook food without the need for fuel.  Get a pot boiling, take it off the heat, place it in the hot box and let it cook itself.  They are very low tech, easy to make and a good livelihoods project too.
  5. Basa Magogo is a technique developed in rural communities in South Africa, used in coal cookers, improving the efficiency of the stove and allowing the same amount of cooking to be done with much less fuel.  Good for communities still relying on coal or the like for cooking.

The introduction of street lighting is also important in reducing crimes in communities, benefitting the most vulnerable amongst these communities.  You can read about some of the principles behind the City of Cape Town’s Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading programme here.

The energy section of the Smart Living Handbook has some very handy tips for saving energy that I’m not going to repeat here.  But naturally, saving energy wherever possible should be a priority.


I have drunk so much bottled water since being in the Philippines that I feel quite ashamed.  This naturally links to the waste topic above.  I can afford bottled and filtered water; many cannot.  This was an issue in Malapascua, where the quality of the local water was inadequate but filtered water needed to be brought from the mainland at an obvious expense.

It rains so much here, and when it rains, it literally pours.  There is enough fresh water.  A lot of the buildings and resorts that I’ve seen have water tanks installed to capture and store rain water, but there seems to be a constant message of ‘tap water is not potable.’  In a place with so much rain falling, and with such a high water content in the air, it’s hard to imagine water being an issue.

I’m not going to look into major infrastructure solutions as this is not the intention of this post and the smart living handbook focuses mostly on saving water in a setting where water is a service provided by a municipality.  This is not necessarily appropriate for smaller, more remote communities.  But here are some ideas or concepts to consider:

  1. Is there anything that is compromising an otherwise good water source (e.g. waste water, pollution, leakage)
  2. Where water is provided at a municipal level, is the water being used appropriately (i.e. not for watering the garden), are products available to allow for the efficient use of water (e.g. low-flow shower heads) and are there programmes in place to minimise leakages?
  3. There’s a lot of work and research that has gone into distributed water generation options and a number of technologies exist.  Here is a list of fifteen that I found; they range in complexity and scale, and would need to be considered in context.
  4. One of these technologies that I came across in South Africa was by a company called Dew.  It’s not the only manufacturer of this type of technology, but it stuck with me as I hadn’t heard of it before, and because it is a standalone piece of technology, that can provide water from the atmosphere anywhere where water vapour condenses on the side of a cold drink.  Water is condensed from the atmosphere, and I think they use wind power, but solar is also a possible energy source.  It is treated to ensure the water is clean and to improve the mineral content and taste, and is then bottled.  It’s a closed cycle, when reusable water bottles are used.  The amount of water that can be generated is naturally dependent on the water content in the atmosphere, but the technology is good for distributed installations.  There are obvious benefits associated with reduced energy required for cleaning ground water, and less waste from a reduced dependency on bottled water (where bottles are reused).  It’s an investment option, but one that can benefit a community for years, address health concerns relating to water quality, create sustainable livelihoods and improve the water security of remote communities.


The focus on biodiversity can be read as protection of the natural environment from human developments. However, addressing the underlying inequality and poverty prevalent in remote communities can help to reduce the burden on natural services.

One of the challenges that I’ve come across in the Philippines is around fishing practices.  Dynamite and cyanide fishing techniques that have been used around here are naturally incredibly destructive and very short term options for catching fish.  I asked Axelle if people where using these practices to meet the demands of a greedy multinational type figure, but she said that the fishermen were mostly looking to provide food for the community.  Cyanide fishing looks to catch fish for aquariums, and it just boggles the mind that this practice is being used.  Consider my mind boggled.

Ignoring the rest of the world demanding their own Nemo in their fish tank, let’s look at responding to the need for food and other ways biodiversity is impacted:

  1. The Smart Living Handbook has some tips on how to start a garden.  This is particularly relevant where the soil is substandard.  I am a massive fan of small scale farming initiatives, and to me it doesn’t make sense to be importing things that are incredibly easy to grow (like tomatoes and spinach, they grow like weeds) from other islands or towns.  Localising food production helps to improve the community’s autonomy and resilience, reduces the pressure on natural systems to provide food, and can present opportunities for the creation of sustainable livelihoods.  This is also linked to waste, in that the organic products separated by the user can be an input into the gardens.
  2. I’m a big fan of worm farms and bought one for my parents one Christmas.  The little worms work all day for you to turn organic waste into worm wine, which can be diluted and poured over gardens or farms as fertiliser.  They present a livelihoods opportunity: I’ll pick up your organic waste, feed it to my worms and then sell worm wine to farms to support them growing fruit and vegetables that they can then sell or use to support their family.
  3. Friends of mine started a company called Cangro, focusing on teaching farming principles in schools.  They use an upside down paint can, and grow fruit and vegetables in them.  Have a look, it’s a brilliant concept.

Personal rant on dogs and cats: I am a big fan of having pets, and recognise the value that they bring in terms of companionship, love and affection.  However, cats, in particular, are incredibly destructive.  To lizards, to birds.  Their faeces is home to some nasty parasites; it’s pretty nasty stuff.  Left to their own devices (where they are not ‘pets’) they can breed like rabbits, and from what I’ve seen, they tend to end up being quite inbred and live pretty horrible lives, with leaky eyes, warped tails, mangy coats, mewing for scraps and they are often clearly underfed.  Dogs don’t look all that much better and there seems to be an outbreak of mange on Malapascua.  I don’t know how hard it is to set up neutering and spaying services in a community, or other options to control their numbers, but if it is at all feasible, it must surely be the humane thing to do.  A lot of these animals are heartbreaking to look at and can’t be good for the local environment.