Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Wonder What That Building Is... Recycling in Japan

4th August, 2010 - Well this really was supposed to be a quick post... about a plain old big building I saw... but the post has sort of expanded a bit. During my first few trips to Sapporo, I'd always noticed these rather large imposing buildings dotted around the city... and they always looked just a little odd to me. It's embarrassing, but I always thought it looked like a power station... of course, now the whole world knows what a Japanese nuclear power station looks like... but I had both an active imagination and not much sense.

And eventually I just had to ask my wife, what is that building?.. to which she replied, "oh that, it's just a recycling building"... hmmm, that was a little disappointing, but then again, in this day and age, re-cycling should be interesting to us all.

Indeed, Sapporo like many cities in Japan has gone re-cycling crazy. Not only do you have to pay for each  bag of rubbish you throw away, but you have to separate your waste into combustible (paper), non-combustible, PET plastics, cans. Newspaper recycling occurs periodically with large trucks driving around the city blaring announcements for people to bring out their paper. This all goes towards acheiving 3R concept of reducereuse and recycle. Indeed, there are towns in Japan moving to a zero waste concept, where they separate their household waste into 34 different bin types. Now that's over-kill if you ask me. Back home in Adelaide, we just separate out into rubbish, recyclables and green-waste - and in some places in Adelaide the recyclables are put in the same (separated) bin as the normal waste!

Now for those travelling to Japan, here's a few signs that you might see...

 Combustible, i.e. paper (kami)
 PET bottles
 Non-combustibles, i.e. non PET plastics, (pura)
 Cans, aluminium (arumi)
Steel, (suchiru)
(thanks to wikipedia)

And of course, most of the public bins also require you to separate your waste into cans (カン), bottles or bin (ビン), and PET bottles (ペットボトル) as shown below. However, if you're observant, you might see that somehow the cans and bottles on the left have been swapped. Just goes to show that no system is perfect.

The other signs that you're likely to see are combustible or moeru gomi (もえるゴミ) on the left, and non-combustible or moenai gomi (もえないゴミ) on the right.

Indeed, here's some rough figures (a little dated now) on Sapporo's municipal solid waste (MSW) situation:

It shows an interesting thing, only 20% of waste back in 2003 ended up in land-fill, but a staggering ~70% was incinerated. I guess it means less land-fill, which is a good thing... but... 

And that's where things get a bit murky... as I'm sure that "recycling" in the context normally means the re-using of materials, e.g. recycled paper and cardboard. Incineration is considered recycling here in terms of waste recycled into energy. Waste-to-energy conversion through incineration is generally considered an undesirable method today, especially due to the potential pollution problems that it can cause, such as the release of dioxins into the air.

Overall the move to a greener, more sustainable society seems to be occurring. Indeed, Japan generates far less waste than most, at around 400 kg per person per year.
(Source : OECD data)

And interestingly this relatively low per capita rate also extends to CO2 emissions, with Japan lying quite competitively for what is a significantly industrialised country. Of course these things are not necessarily linked. What is perhaps more scary (for me personally) is just how bad a polluter Australia is on a per capita basis... thankfully we've only got a population of about 22 million (compared to China's population of 1.3 billion).

The Japanese are good adopters of new concepts - and have taken to recycling seriously. Recycling is certainly a big business in Japan today... but it's still a complicated affair with Japan developing concepts of Eco-towns which represent huge waste recycling centres for the conversion of waste.  For all the acceptance of the need to recycle, it's hard to know how much consideration is really given to what happens to all that waste once it leaves the front door. Then again, given that they produce almost half (per capita) of what we do here in Australia, I'd say they're doing something right.

So we get back to that strange building I photographed way back at the start of this post. It turns out that we were both right. The odd building may be "recycling" but it's also a power station of sorts. But as with many things in Japan, it's never quite so simple...


  1. We do all the work and the government gets the profit. I say hand over trash collection to the private sector in Japan. Or at least start paying us for all the damn work we to for the government.

  2. Hmmm - as far as I know most of the recycling companies are privatised. I understand that the cost per kg is still significantly higher for recycled waste if you don't factor in a lot of waste filtering and cleaning at the household level.

    As far as I can see however, there's very little in the way of clear, objective cost-benefit analysis on recycling out in the public arena (as compared to the subjective, and altruistic environmental beliefs that surround recycling).

    The benefit at one level should be cheaper goods through the use of cheaper raw supplies... but that doesn't always work that way (as "green" often attracts a premium).

  3. the "strange building" at the start of the post reminded me of the coal-fired battersea power station in london (which is used in the recent "say yes" carbon tax ad in oz). i would have expected that recycling facilities would look more, i don't know, different.

    great post by the way... very comprehensive.

  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one that thought 'power station'. Thanks btw... and I suspect that the recycling story is a lot more involved than what I've portrayed. One of the things I found is that it's difficult to know what goes on exactly, as there seems to be a general acceptance of "that's just the way it is"...

    Incinerators are generally old technology, but I know there are new versions of them to. I don't know what they use in Sapporo...

  5. I'm surprised that Japan doesn't produce more waste than 400kg's per person. I mean, I have seen a plastic bag of peanuts with each peanut inside individually wrapped in plastic. They love to wrap their stuff. Double bagging in the supermarket, double cupping in Starbucks. Bottles of wine wrapped in protective foam before they are bagged. It must all be recyclable and the recycled stuff doesn't count as waste...

  6. You know - that's definitely true, at least in part. Japanese love packaging... and I'd have thought much more than back here in Australia. I have to say, that I'm always a little hesitant about using "web-based" data, as you never quite know how they're sourced. For now, I'm happy to believe the figures, and I know for a fact that the recycle rate is streets ahead of the situation in Australia.

    Actually, the introduction of laws banning the selling of single-use plastic bags in supermarkets here definitely changed habits very quickly. So things can change quite quickly, with a little help from governments.

    I'd love to see some better data. And as for those individually wrapped peanut... I'll keep my eye out for that next trip... to avoid buying. That's just crazy!