In Japan’s Zero-Waste Town, Recycling Requires Zen-Like Patience

If you thought sorting out your recycling every week was a bit tedious, spare a thought for the residents of Kamikatsu, a village in Japan. They have to spend a lot more time cleaning cartons, flattening boxes, and finding the right place to dump their bottles and cans. Kamikatsu, which aims to go “zero waste,” has 34 separate categories of recycling items, including aluminum cans, spray cans, cardboard, magazines, flyers, steel cans, and more.

The village started its program back in 2003 and now 80% of its waste gets recycled, reused, or composted, according to this film from Seeker Stories. Kamikatsu hopes to send nothing to landfill by 2020.

The model relies a lot on residents helping out. There are no garbage trucks, so people have to take everything themselves to a collection center. Kamikatsu also has a “circular” shop where villagers can bring items to swap with their neighbors. And there’s a recycling factory, where women make new bags from old clothes.

Before committing to zero-waste, Kamikatsu built an incinerator, but this produced toxic dioxins in the air, raised health concerns, and cost money. The new system saves the villages a third of its former costs, the film says.

America has an average 34% recycling rate, though some cities like San Francisco recover appreciably more waste (at least 75%). Kamikatsu shows that it is possible to do better–but not without buy-in from the community.