Waste management is not a topic many people want to discuss in America, but we may not have much of a choice as landfills eat away at our geography. This is a problem shared with many other countries, but Japan is not one of them. In fact, Japan has taken the opposite route and uses incineration plants to get rid of their waste. Though neither method is without its weaknesses, it is curious how two highly developed countries developed such different ways to manage their waste. So why does Japan favor the incinerator and America the landfill?
The first factor is land itself. America has land to fill so to say; whereas, Japan’s small island space is overrun by mountains and other unusable land, leaving them with less than 30% of their already miniscule land mass. Japan has no choice when it comes to getting rid of waste; trash being dumped in livable areas literally means dumping trash on people’s lawns, and dumping it in the mountains would be not only dangerous (consider: trash landslides), but it would also likely be met by extreme backlash. A large part of Japanese culture revolves around the concept of wa, or harmony. Harmony does not just mean getting along with other people, though. This concept includes respect and a good relationship with nature and one’s general surroundings. The surroundings are often more important than the self in Japanese culture, so to disrupt the natural environment in any way, nonetheless by dumping trash on it, is somewhat of a sin.
This can also be seen on a smaller scale, as there is a serious lack of litter in Japan, especially compared to America. Americans are humanitarians if they even find a can to put their trash in, and they are saints if they actually try to sort out their trash into the proper bins, but in Japan the latter is expected to perfection with every straw, every crumpled homework assignment, every empty soda can, every time. This is, once again, to keep the harmony that is essential for the Japanese way of life. In Japan, one is responsible for their own trash, even if they must carry it for miles, because to leave it in the streets would be soiling not only the appearance of that area but also the area’s harmony. In other words, if you threw trash on the ground, you have made something stand out in a negative way and, therefore, made a negative impact on society.
There is another core concept apart from harmony worth noting, as it is also responsible for the conscientiousness of Japanese citizens. Japan maintains a long-term vision for their society; according to Hofstede, they should be ready for anything that comes their way with the amount of future planning that they do. Perhaps there are some uninhabited places to put a landfill, but large areas filled with trash would cause serious problems for future generations, and this is something that Japan takes careful note of. America, unsurprisingly, not so much. Americans want what they want when they want it, and they won’t let a little litter get in their way. Despite daily news stories about the destruction of wildlife and human life due to over used landfills, Americans continue to say “that’s awful! We should do something about this” while throwing their coke bottle in the nearest trash can. America is a lot of talk and not a lot of action regarding future planning, and this leads to a peculiar final factor I believe may impact how we manage our waste.
Americans tend to be rather dramatic when talking about changes for the future, but seldom do those changes actually happen. Social issues gain a little more traction and tend to lead to some result, but until we physically see the damage of landfills right in front of us, we will not have the desire to change what it going on. This is because America is a hands-on culture. Maybe it is because we are so low-context, but Americans want to elicit change themselves, and they only want to elicit this change after they experience or even see an injustice firsthand.
None of this is to say that incineration is a perfect waste management system. It helps Japan keep its usable land mass usable, and that is one of their main priorities regarding sustainability. Though the devilish view Americans have of trash incineration is not entirely incorrect- there are oftentimes harmful fumes etc involved- the Japanese are coming up with ways to use the fumes for energy and other positive developments, something we could learn from.
Waste management in Japan is very different than in the United States. Japan primarily incinerates all of their waste while the United States disposes of their waste in landfills. Japan, on the other hand, does not recycle a lot of their waste compared to the United States. However, Japan does use their old landfills to generate energy. We had the chance to tour a solar farm that had been built on top of an old landfill.
The main reason that Japan incinerates their trash and the United States landfills is due to the amount of available land. The United States obviously has more land, so it is more feasible to dispose of trash in a landfill. Japan on the other hand, is only about the size of California, and only 14% of its land is flat enough to live on. Therefore, there is no room to be disposing of their trash in landfills. It’s a lot more practical to incinerate the waste.
Japan also has cultural reasons that have an effect on their trash disposal. I think their shame culture helps prevent a lot of people from littering. Japanese people are likely to be afraid of being called out or “shamed” if they are seen not disposing of trash properly. In the United States though, there is more of a guilt culture. However, some people in the United States will not feel enough guilt to not litter.
While there are certainly some similarities between the two highly developed nations, there are also major infrastructure differences between Japan and the United States. As we have talked about in class and observed throughout the trip, these differences are often a product of deeper cultural nuances. Because of these cultural differences, Japan and the United States vary in their practices and overall attitudes toward municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal.
Solar panels built over at landfill at Kansai Electric Power Company
A major factor that has influenced the handling of MSW disposal between the two cultures is the geography of each nation. Due to Japan’s relatively small size and mountainous terrain, there is very little flat and usable land available. Of the 12% that is viable for development, it is nearly all designated for residential and agricultural purposes due to Japan’s high population density. Accordingly, there is very little space for landfills, making incineration an even more appealing alternative. Furthermore, landfilled terrain sinks overtime and therefore can’t be built upon, while incineration byproducts can be used to create new islands. This is not the case in the United States, however; there is plenty of sparsely populated land that can house landfills, so much so that there is even a market for interspersing waste between states. On our field trip, we got to visit Kansai Electric Power (KEPCO) and tour a landfill that they had repurposed to produce solar energy with a layer of photovoltaic cells. While primarily an experimental project, the idea shows Japan’s commitment to making the most of their scarce habitable land.
Pristine pond at a very old property in Shodoshima
Another aspect influencing each country’s MSW disposal processes is the feeling of cultural ties toward the land and a respect for the nation’s natural resources, or the lack thereof. Japanese culture has existed and evolved for thousands of years, while the US has had only a few hundred years to begin developing the foundations of a cultural identity. Consequently, US citizens are more detached from their roots and cannot possibly experience the same connection to their countries’ resources and history than the Japanese can. American culture promotes a “rugged individual” mentality in which people are encouraged to act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of society. In the context of MSW disposal, this sentiment translates into Americans wanting cheap and convenient waste technology that is far from them or their homes. The Japanese, on the other hand, consider the implications for the overall group and are conscious of the future when making development choices. The Japanese word “mottainai” is an environmentally minded sentiment meaning “treasuring and reusing things as long as possible.” This idea pervades in society and influences their government and industry attitudes toward waste management.
Trash collection system at Hiroshima festival
One interesting example of the Japanese attitude toward waste disposal that I observed was at the Kimono festival in Hiroshima. There were tens of thousands of people in the streets, purchasing food items from street vendors, which caused an overflow in the already strained and limited garbage cans. At the center of major intersections, they had large disposal containers set up with employees stationed in front. You’d hand them your garbage or recycling, and in exchange, they gave you a cute plastic wrapped (ironically) napkin with the festival logo on it. This system was literally rewarding people for properly disposing of their trash and seemed very unlike anything you’d encounter in America.
Percentage of landfilling materials reported by the US EPA in 2015
Ultimately, each country’s waste management system is influenced by its efficiency, convenience, and the culture of the people it serves. Japan’s geography and cultural identity has helped shape its MSW disposal program into an effective and relatively sustainable system. If we want to improve our waste management practices in the United States, we will likely need a cultural shift to spark a trend toward reducing waste production and developing landfill alternatives.
The difference in trash or MSW (municipal solid waste) disposal between Japan and the United States is one difference that I have been really surprised by. Japan takes trash disposal and recycling way more seriously than the United States despite there not being trash cans everywhere you go. In the United States, you’ll see multiple trash cans on almost every street corner, and people will still litter and not seem to care about disposal.
Another difference I was surprised by was the amount of MSW that people produce every day. People in Japan produce an average of two pounds of MSW, and in the United States it’s up to four pounds a day. This is way higher (and honestly a little worrying) than what I would have expected. I was thinking it would be more along the lines of 1 pound a day, but that is usually only in certain parts of Africa where MSW production is that low. The trash in Japan is often separated into multiple types such as combustibles, plastics, and cans/bottles. Whereas in the United States, trash is usually disposed of in one or two types: non-recyclables and recyclables.
The trash cans in Japan are also clearly labeled which isn’t too different than in the United States. However, the trash cans in Japan are also divided into the different types of waste which is different than most trash cans in the United States. This makes it easier for people to dispose of their waste properly, but in the United States the waste often gets mixed up and recyclables are lost in the regular trash.
Japan and the US have cultural and environmental differences that affect how we dispose of waste. Factors such as size, rule following, and stigmas influence the MSW systems.
The main difference that has influenced Japan’s MSW system is how much less usable land than the US does. Without extra space, they can’t use landfills as easily. In lecture, we learned about how you can’t put a building on top of a landfill because of how the landfill sinks over time. People also don’t want to live near a landfill, so Japan can’t waste the space on top of or around a landfill. They do have some landfills, like the one we visited in Sakai Solar Power Station. They built a solar farm on top of the landfill because solar panels are light and it’s ok if they sink.
In both countries it is illegal to cross a crosswalk when the light is red. Japanese people, for the most part, wait at the red light even if there are no cars. In the US, if you can cross without getting run over, you will. Japanese people tend to follow the formal and informal institutions. Americans like to defy the system and be individual. I think that is part of the reason for Japan’s MSW system. The Japanese will take the time to sort their trash before throwing it away. Having pre-sorted trash makes waste management easier and they can incinerate waste more effectively and recycle more products.
Since Japan is an island country, they have a lot of access to the ocean. They can use waste to build more land, something they need. The US doesn’t really have a need for more land, nor is the ocean a big part of our daily life (depends on where you live). We also have stricter regulations on what we put into the water. Japan uses their incinerated waste when they build the islands. The US doesn’t have many incinerators to make these islands anyway. Incinerators have a bad reputation in the US even though they have been proven to work in other countries.
Both countries have MSW systems that are different but come from each countries values and resources. Both systems could improve, but they function well in their own ways.
Different societies have different means of dealing with waste disposal. In America, waste is primarily sent to landfills after being processed. In Japan, however, incinerators are used much more commonly to dispose of waste material. Japan has almost 2,000 incineration plants, compared with fewer than 100 in America. There are several reasons as to why Japan and America have radically different waste disposal systems, primarily related to the geographic and cultural differences between the nations.
A number of covered bags of contaminated soil in Fukushima Prefecture. The large amount of otherwise unusable land in the area makes landfills more useful.
One of the main differences between the two nations is the amount of free land available. In America, there is a good deal of open space available, making landfills much more lucrative. In Japan, however, the small amount of land available relative to the large population means that landfills are difficult to set up. Conversely, however, this makes land reclamation programs, in which trash is piled up in specified locations on the coast to create more land, much more useful. The solar power plant that we visited was built on reclaimed land. Land reclamation is not popular in America due to the large amount of available land compared to existing coastline. Incinerators are not used widely in America as they have relatively few advantages over landfills, except in areas where landfills cannot be situated, such as Florida.
Japan's high population density and small amount of available land area means that incinerators are usally preferable to landfills.
The other main reason for the differences in waste disposal systems between America and Japan are cultural differences. The democratic nature of America means that if a local government intends to install an incineration plant, the local community will likely protest this idea. While Japan is similarly democratic, the lack of public protests against these projects means that they are more likely to go through. America’s culture also looks towards using natural gases for energy generation, which can be harnessed from methane production from landfills. Japan, however, uses a variety of energy sources, such as from energy regeneration facilities, meaning that incinerators are more widely accepted. Overall, waste management differs in countries due to a variety of cultural and environmental factors, meaning that there is no singular sustainable method of disposing of waste. Incineration methods may not work in less advanced societies, as advanced technologies are needed to limit the production of greenhouse gases; on the other hand, some countries may not have the land area necessary for landfills.
One very obvious societal difference between Japan and the United States is each country’s unique waste management system. It is clear that both nations differ not only in garbage disposal practices, but also in their attitudes towards waste generation itself. After spending the past month in various cities across Japan, I’ve experienced the Japanese methods firsthand and recently got the opportunity to learn more thoroughly about their origins in lecture.
Forbes graphic showing the contrast in per capita waste generation between the US and Japan
Municipal solid waste (MSW) is defined by the EPA as trash from consumers including plastic, food waste, furniture, and most other non-toxic public waste. The MSW collection processes are relatively similar between the two countries, with both depending heavily on collection and transport vehicles. It is the fate of the waste once it has been picked up that is most stark difference. Japan incinerates their MSW before transporting the remnants to sanitary landfills, while the United States primarily exports its waste directly landfills and dumping sites. Japan operates over 1,200 incineration sites, while the US has less than 70. Instead, the US relies on landfills to dispose of hundreds of millions of tons of MSW each year. Food and plastics accounted for about 41% of these landfilled materials in 2015, while the Japanese combust opt to similar food waste and recycle many of the same high-grade plastics.
Waste bins at the train station separated by combustibles, papers, and plastics
Moreover, Japan has a much more stringent MSW preparation process prior to transport than that of the US. Recycling and combustibles are sorted with intense guidelines and must be disposed of at specific locations at fixed times. For example, our dorm room has three different types of MSW disposal, each with a special type of bag and strict pickup hours. The United States, on the other hand, is much more lenient with waste collection rules. Trash is not separated prior to collection and larger items can be left on the curb for pickup. Recycling practices are often times poorly explained, which can result in batches of municipal recycling becoming contaminated and sent to the landfill along with the rest of the household waste. For these reasons, Japan’s MSW management practices are more efficient and resourceful than the United States’.
Trash just before pickup outside a Tokyo restaurant separated by cardboards, plastics, and food waste
Another very pronounced difference between the two nation’s waste management systems is the availability of public trashcans and recycling containers. The US has accessible trashcans in nearly all public spaces and a growing number of community recycling bins. In Japan, however, public waste and recycling receptacles are extremely hard to locate. There are usually PET plastic and aluminum recycling bins stationed by vending machines or tiny trashcans outside food stalls, but their scarcity often times leads to people carrying their garbage with them until they return home.
Landfill we visited that has been repurposed for solar energy generation
Because the Japanese are required to separate their garbage and recycling prior to disposal, they are forced to be more aware of the waste they produce each day. Maintaining this consciousness encourages people to generate less waste, both for convenience sake and for environmental reasons. In the United States, the ease of MSW disposal creates an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. The ability to constantly discard food or consumer waste removes any feeling of personal accountability. The EPA reports that the per capita MSW generation in the US was about 4.48 pounds per person (closer to 6 pounds in Georgia), while the average Japanese citizen produces closer to 2 pounds daily. Perhaps if the US could alter their MSW disposal practices to mirror the Japanese and promote public consciousness, we could see a decrease in waste generation and consequent increase in the sustainability of our waste infrastructure.
In lecture on Thursday, we discussed the historical development of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) management policies in Japan and the United States. Both countries started creating legal policies for waste in the mid-1900s for environmental protection. The Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) of 1965 was the first US MSW law enacted, and the Waste Management Act of 1970 in Japan became its framework for MSW policy. The beginnings of waste policies were very similar in timeliness, yet today we see that these countries look very different with how they handle waste.
As I discussed in my last post, Japan policy has created a majority incineration-based management while the US relies more on landfills. This is fairly logical from a space argument; the US is much less dense of a country than Japan and has space (for now at least) for landfills. Space solutions are similar for radioactive waste as it is literally just sitting in storage facilities because there's no long term solution for what to do with it. Space is our asset for waste in this country.
Japan, on the other hand, is small and highly populated—and the space used for landfills becomes unproductive (or can't be used for many other activities). Our field trip to the solar panel center showed one way the Kansai region is making use of a landfill as a spot for solar panels. The choice of incineration allows for Japan to save space, and its visually cleaner than landfills.
So space is a large factor in the choice of how to get rid of waste. But looking at the effectiveness of these policies also requires an understanding of what is being thrown away. Japan and the US have different definitions of what MSW is, and what should be recycled. In the United States, MSW includes bottles and corrugated boxes, food, grass clippings, furniture, computers, tires and refrigerators. In Japan, consumer recycling policy is more refined to include home appliances, and fertilizer and feed producers. These were put into policy by the Home Appliance Recycling Law (2001), which is intended to promote the recycling of useful parts and reduces the amount of unwanted household appliances in local landfills. Additionally, the Food Recycling law of 2000 called for a recycle loop for feed and fertilizers.
A comparative outcome is this: approximately 50% of solid wastes are recycled in Japan, compared to about 30% in the United States. Japan's recycling efforts have increasing at a higher rate than the US has since policy was originally instituted.
The reasons for more effective policy in the United States appear to be cultural, as we discussed in breakout groups the other day. Japan has a concept called "Mottainai," which means treasuring and using things for as long as possible. I think as Americans, this practice of conservation was more common during the Great Depression, but today, we have a culture of planned obsolescence—things are made to be finite. We're also trendy, and we (specifically my generation) replaces things quickly as they fall out of style. And because MSW policies aren't very strict in the country at the household level, the result is a lot of disorganized waste.
Through transit, and now through waste management, I've found that the United States can learn a lot from Japan.
It is given that each country has developed a unique culture that is shared by no other country. Such an upbringing would undoubtedly create differences in how a country operates. Consequently, there are a lot of factors that both indirectly and directly impact government policies and individual practices pertaining to waste management.
An obvious difference is the size of land, with Japan being 26 times smaller than the United States. To put things into perspective, Japan is close in size to California alone, and approximately 70% of Japan's land is mountainous, which makes it mostly uninhabitable. With a relative population size of 126.8 million crammed into the size of California, Japan must efficiently make use of its limited space, which is largely seen in how they manage their waste. While Japan primarily uses incineration to dispose their waste, landfills do exist but are uncommon due to the unavailability of land. I also recently learned that landfills can also be transformed to maximize land use. The Kansai International Airport in Osaka, which most of us will fly out of at the end of this study abroad, was built on top of a landfill. His past week, we took a field trip to the Sakai Solar Power Station, which was formerly an industrial waste landfill. Because houses and buildings could not be built on top, it was later repurposed into a solar farm that generates enough electricity for 3,000 households a year with its 74,000 solar panels.
Given Japan's small land and collectivistic culture, there are also stricter recycling policies. By repurposing used materials, this then reduces the amount of incinerated waste, as well as the waste stream. From a cultural perspective, the Japanese are more inclined to undergo the meticulous process of separating their trash into their respective bin. This is mostly due to the fear of public shaming as the public eye seems to control most of their actions. Their role in their community is much more important than their individual self, so they would neither litter nor carelessly dump all of their trash into one trash can without paying attention to the different labels.
Source: Business Insider
In contrast, the United States takes advantage of its spacious land by using landfills. The downside is that these landfills are not usually repurposed; because some are built near neighborhoods, they are covered by greenery to make them look more appealing to the public. It is also common to transport waste from one state to another, which I initially found puzzling because who could possibly want more trash? I later learned that the import of waste to a particular landfill generates more money for whoever owns the place, which could be either the government or a private company. This, therefore, reveals how waste management in the United States is money-driven, which can lead to many other problems.
With the practice of individualism, it is also difficult to get everyone to separate their trash by incombustible, combustible, PET bottles, and more. While comparing to the Japanese, it can be generalized that most Americans are lazy and hate inconveniency. There seems to be the mindset that if something doesn't affect them personally, it's not their problem, and they hold no responsibility for it. Additionally, recycling in the States is not as heavily reinforced, which can be seen on the streets of New York City, for instance. There are trash cans stationed at every corner, but they unfortunately store all types of trash. Not every trash can has a recycling bin next to it, but despite having these options, people still choose to litter. Embodying a collectivistic culture, the Japanese, however, do the complete opposite. It is interesting to observe that with the lack of trash cans on the streets, they still manage to not litter.
A country's cultural practices really do play a significant role in how an individual throws away his/her trash. It never came to me that even the amount of habitable land can drastically affect an entire country's waste disposal practices. I am also curious as to whether a country similar in size manages their waste similarly or differently to the United States. In addition to these cultural and environmental factors, I hope to learn about more aspects that affect waste management policies in the coming weeks.
To really understand the sustainability of a country, you have to dig deep into the profile of the country. Every country has a different definition of “trash,” produces a different amount of trash on average, and responds to trash differently. Japan incinerates most of their waste and landfills the combusted products. America incinerates a small portion of the waste but landfills a large majority of it as it was discarded. There are several explanations as to why these two countries developed their respective waste management processes.
A major difference which contributes to the divergent garbage response is the geography of the countries. Japan is a very small country compared to the U.S. On top of that, most of the country is mountainous, making the livable and workable areas of the country extremely densely inhabited. They cannot simply bury their trash; first they must make it as compact as possible by incineration. The product of incineration must then be stored somewhere; the lack of space in Japan has forced them to look outward for solutions. Japan landfills the products of incineration in the ocean, making new islands of trash covered in soil. The landfills are then converted into recreational fields and solar panel parks. In America, open space is much more prevalent. There are miles of uninhabited land throughout the U.S., making large landfills much more common. Rather than incinerating the trash first, some American garbage is just thrown into the ground and buried. Most American landfills are built up above the ground, creating a mountain of trash. Some of these mountains are converted into fields and solar parks, but this is difficult because mountain landfills shift a great deal over time, potentially causing damage to anything built above them. Geography plays a key role in waste management, but it is not the only deciding factor on garbage disposal processes.
Another key aspect in waste management systems is the culture of a country. According to the Hofstede Cultural Dimensions analysis, Japan is much more long-term oriented than America. Burning garbage to reduce the size and creating new islands to make usable space is a solution which does not outright burden future generations. However, America’s mountains of garbage are a much more “out of sight, out of mind” solution. One day, Americans will run out of space or resources and will have to face the piles of trash stored throughout the country. America is also more of a business culture and has turned trash disposal into a very profitable enterprise. Private companies own landfills and charge heavily to dispose of the public’s garbage. While landfills are profitable, it is unlikely the U.S. will stop using them. America is also a convenience culture; most Americans do not separate their household garbage because it is an extra hassle and the government does not enforce any waste sorting of residential trash. Japanese meticulously separate their trash, which makes incineration much easier and more efficient. Getting Americans to sort garbage is a tall order, and not likely to happen without government policy.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods of trash disposal. Incineration reduces the amount of space waste requires, but needs advanced technology to reduce pollutants, significant energy to burn the waste, and money to pay for that technology and energy. Landfills are a fast and easy solution but require a lot of space. America has space and values convenience, making landfills an attractive, although not necessarily sustainable, solution. Japan is a collectivist culture, always working for the good of the group. This means planning for the long-term, and separating trash. They place a much higher priority on reusing products rather than tossing them out, valuing everything they have. The policies implemented in a country also affect how trash is viewed and handled. America made waste management policies until the 80’s and 90’s when the policies dropped off. Japan continued making waste management policies through the 2000’s and today.
Every country produces trash and every country must find a solution that fits their environmental and cultural profile. Just because waste disposal practices differ from one country to another, it does not inherently mean one is better than the other. The key is finding a waste management solution which works for the individual country, and then making that unique solution sustainable.