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Japan as ground zero for no-waste lifestyle

Three environmental models: Toyota's Prius factory, an electronics recycler, and a village that recycles 80 percent of its trash.

By Amelia NewcombStaff Writer / December 16, 2008

BOTANICALS AND BINS for recycling: Residents of Kamikatsu recycle 80 percent of their trash.

Andy Nelson

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Kamikatsu, Japan

Tucked almost imperceptibly into cedar-blanketed mountains an hour's winding drive from the nearest metropolis, Kamikatsu seems an unlikely spot for a revolution.

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But try to throw even a candy wrapper away here, and it's quickly apparent that residents are radically reshaping their relationship to the environment.

This is a town singularly focused on banishing waste – all waste – by 2020. The 2,000 people of Kamikatsu have dispensed with public trash bins. They set up a Zero Waste Academy to act as a monitor. The town dump has become a sort of outdoor filing cabinet, embracing 34 categories of trash – from batteries to fluorescent lights to bottle caps.

Kamikatsu has probably pushed the recycling ethic as far as any community in the world. But it's just one small indicator of a national drive by Japan to position itself as a leader in the world's urgent quest to live greener.

The momentum cuts across a broad base – from individual recycling to factory efficiency to trading in electronic trash.

Just four decades ago, this small island nation had become an environmental cautionary tale, some of its cities synonymous with the high health costs of rapid postwar industrialization.

But the strengths that propelled Japan toward economic superpowerdom – efficient manufacturing and technological refinement among them – have also helped lay the foundation for a more energy efficient and less polluting society.

Last July, Japanese hosted the G-8 summit and gave it an environmental cast, touting how their manufacturers sustained a drive for energy stinginess long after the oil shocks of the 1970s gave way to the cheap fuel and SUVs of the '90s.

More recently, recycling efforts have burgeoned, as has progress in reducing waste in everything from cars to copy machines. And with cellphones and computers becoming obsolete at fiber optic speeds, Japan is emerging as a top competitor in what is known as urban mining – safely extracting valuable metals for industrial reuse.

"Japan has generally been better than [the US] internationally on a number of issues, including reducing electronic waste, recycling, and energy-efficiency," says Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy in New Haven, Conn. "The region sees Japan as technological leaders, and as we move more toward understanding the technological role in making environmental progress, there's a sense that Japan has a lot to share."

At Toyota's Tsutsumi assembly plant in Nagoya, Japan's answer to Detroit, evidence of a more environmentally sensitive car industry is on display before you even walk through a door. What was once a vast, gray expanse of industrial might has come to life – literally.

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