Can Japan Teach Us Anything About Waste and Litter?
Even if you have never visited Japan you will probably have heard that Japan is thought to be a very tidy and clean country. Visitors are often amazed by the lack of litter – especially in cities, which conversely seem to have an lack of rubbish bins in which to place litter. We are going to look at how Japan has reached and maintained this level of cleanliness, and what we can learn from this to tackle the UK’s litter problem.
The clean streets of Japan
Japan currently has a 77% recycling rate as a country; compared to just 20% in the USA and around 36% in the UK. These figures show how committed Japan is to recycling, and this passion for waste management seems to pass over into litter too.
There are a few road signs in Japan telling people to take their rubbish home with them, and that seems to be all that is required. There aren’t signs all over public places, threatening fines. There are no huge anti-litter crusades. People just take their waste home with them, and that’s that!
Japanese society contributes greatly to this litter-free environment. The Japanese don’t really do ‘eating on the go’, which contributes to a lot of rubbish in other countries. Alongside this, as a people, the Japanese in the main have a large concern about what others think of them, and because of this they would not want to be seen in public to be littering or not to be recycling.
Japan’s lack of street litter is especially interesting and amazing, as residents have to pay to have home rubbish collected; they have to buy designated bags for their waste, which they then have to take to a collection location. I'm sure if we combined this with a lack of public bins in the UK and we would have an even bigger litter problem!
Japanese culture and waste background
Before the 20th century, Japanese culture centred on reuse, and therefore very little waste was created. Numerous items were made from wood, and were built to last. If they broke, they were repaired. People would collect scraps of paper littering roads, which were then turned into toilet paper.
During the 20th century, rapid economic growth led to the mass production of disposable items. This change caused huge problems with levels of waste, which in turn caused large ecological issues. It was also realised that Japan does not have much room for landfill. All these things combined caused a change in thinking. Authorities pushed moral and environmental issues onto their people, and recycling progress began. Since the year 2000 in particular, the Japanese have been very aware of waste material and recycling. Laws have also kept businesses up to date with recycling.
Japanese bins are always bunched together
Japanese bins are always bunched together, and recycle many types of waste, even bottle tops. Japanese school children are now encouraged to clean up after themselves from a young age. They are put into teams to clean up classrooms and hallways in their schools using a rota system. This instils ethics regarding waste and litter from the very start.
Japan's hidden litter problem
Despite all this information, I must acknowledge that Japan isn’t perfect; litter does occur outside nightspots on a weekend, thanks to drunken tourists and locals who don’t care about social norms, although it is usually quickly cleared up. Some litter is not picked up, and it is this litter that makes its way into Japan’s waterways and eventually into the sea. Many of Japan’s beaches are cluttered with a mix of litter dropped on the sand by sunbathers and litter washed up from the sea.
Can we in the UK learn anything from Japan?
Regrettably, many features of the Japanese approach to waste and litter management wouldn’t work in the UK. If our councils charged us to collect our rubbish, and not even from our homes, there would be an uproar. There would also be a dramatic rise in littering and fly-tipping. Cutting down on bins would have more or less the same effect.
Unfortunately, the cultural difference means Japan’s tactics are not very transferable. How nice would it be, however, if we Brits as a nation could take a leaf out of Japan’s book, dropping less litter and picking up the litter of others would be a great place to start.