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.
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"Towns everywhere are dealing with the same issue – how to be sustainable," he comments. The Internet has boosted his fellow citizens' sense of themselves as international players who should observe and be observed, exchanging tips with counterparts around the world. He also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. "We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it's used. If it can't be recycled in any way, then you can't produce it."Skip to next paragraph
The town now has an 80-percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. (The US national recycling rate is an average of about 34 percent, with some cities considerably higher.) The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the bus load to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually, or about $76,000, and reducing its CO2 emissions.
The change has spread to the minutia of life. Local merchants offer raffle tickets for empty cans and hold drawings for small prizes. People volunteer to pick up illegally dumped materials and snatch up everything that passers-through toss on the road.
Sonoe Fujii, who runs Zero Waste Academy, says she sees more people eating with reusable chopsticks and carrying ecobags, including some made by local women from waste materials. As the town prepares to host a conference of "the most beautiful villages in Japan," clusters of retirees gather on the roadside to put in plants and do some weeding.
Perceptions are changing too. "Garbage has a negative connotation," Ms. Fujii notes. "But when garbage is brought to the town dump and can be recycled, it can have a new life. People smile and chat about the garbage. They have made a strong contribution."
She tells people that while the policy benefits the environment, it also saves them money – allowing for greater town investment in education, among other things. The flow of observers coming to check out the garbage initiative, she adds, bodes well for the future. And as a young person, she's glad to see at least a few people like her heading back to the countryside, attracted by the prospect of a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Fujii hopes that recycling won't be so onerous in the future as manufacturers figure out how to reduce waste and reuse more materials. The next move has to come from business, she asserts. For now, Kamikatsu is aiming to meet its 2020 goal – and the prospect is energizing townspeople of all ages.
That is evident from Kikue Nii's busy back patio. A carefully attended array of potted plants share floor space with washed plastic bags that float like wind chimes from a sock hanger. Next to a tank of fresh-water crabs she draws from the local river, lies a row of plastic recyling bins.
Her practices, which she pushes her grandchildren to emulate, are not just impelled by the new environmental push. Her generation often invoke a long-standing Japanese ethic that has informed samurai and artisans alike: mottainai, or waste not.
"Each person has to do something," Mrs. Nii says, "so their children and grandchildren can have a more peaceful life."