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.
Japan mostly uses incineration to deal with municipal solid waste (MSW) while the US mostly uses landfills. Out of all the OECD countries, Japan has a very low percent of recycling waste and the US recycles more of their trash than Japan. Both Japan and the US use their MSW disposal systems to help generate electricity. I will talk about the environmental and cultural differences that I think have influenced waste management policies of Japan and the US. Percent of total municipal waste that is recycled or composted in OECD countries. (Image taken from Forbes)
Japan is a small island country where only about 14% of the land is flat enough to be usable. This lack of space in the country can explain why it would rather incinerate MSW instead of storing them in landfills. The US, on the other hand, has a lot of abundant space and is about 26 times the size of Japan. The abundance of open space can explain why the US uses landfills since it has the space to do so.
Japan overlayed on the contiguous US. The size difference between the two countries is emphasized here. (Image taken from The World Factbook- CIA)
Japanese shame culture plays a huge part in why Japanese cities are often spotless. I remember walking in a train station of seeing a Japanese teen picking up someone else's trash that was dropped earlier, I do not think that I would ever see anything like this in the US. Japanese gift exchange culture produces a lot of waste for the country that is often incinerated.
The methods that Japan and the United States employ to dispose of Material Solid Waste (MSW) are starkly different. Japan is adamant about recycling practices and burns other garbage as its main disposal method of MSW. In this process, they reduce the amount of physical space their solid waste takes up while also recapturing some of the lost energy from the garbage by generating electricity from the burning process. There are many factors, both cultural and environmental, that can explain why Japan may prefer to implement these methods.
First, Japan is a small country with an even smaller amount of livable land. So, they just don’t have the physical space to use landfills in the same way that the US does. This is probably a big contributor to Japan’s choice to burn their trash instead of putting it in a landfill, because they don’t want to set aside valuable land area to use as landfills. Another contributor to why Japan may choose to burn their trash is their cultural value of cleanliness and tidiness. While being in Japan, I have noticed that even busy city streets are kept quite clean, and I hardly ever see someone looking unkempt. I believe that this contributed to Japan’s choice in the late 1900’s to promote burning garbage over using landfills. When garbage is burned, there is still residual material left over, but it is much smaller than the original mass of garbage that was burned. From a Japanese cultural perspective, I can imagine it would be more appealing to have a smaller amount of leftover waste to deal with than having piles of garbage taking up space, because it can be more easily controlled and contained.
While being in Japan, I have also noticed that people love to package things neatly and in many layers. If I go to a convenience store, I may order a bag of chocolates, which they will put inside another bag when I check out. Then, when I open the bag of chocolates, I will find that each individual chocolate is wrapped in a small plastic bag, as well. This convenience store experience says a lot about Japanese people’s preference to have everything neat and tidy, which, in my opinion, contributed greatly to Japan’s decision to move toward burning trash over putting it in landfills, because although trash is contained when in a landfill, the idea of a landfill for everyday people is much messier than the idea of burning trash. However, this cultural preference to package everything up also generates enormous amounts of plastic waste. This over-packaging of goods is probably a major contributor to why Japan recycles plastics so carefully – because they just use so much of it.
In the US, waste management is a completely different story. In the late 1900’s, when Japan decided to move toward burning trash, the US decided to move toward using landfills. In the US today, there are only 71 incinerators, while there are thousands of landfills. Considering the environment of the US, this make sense since the US has massive amounts of land area, so the fact that landfills take up space is not an issue for the US. There are also cultural reasons why the US landfills so heavily and burns so little trash. One of these reasons is that Americans tend to be very focused on the present and not very future-oriented. So, we often look for the easiest, cheapest solutions for right now. Using landfills is less expensive and takes less energy than burning trash does. So, even though landfills take up space, use a lot of plastic and clay, can put groundwater at risk if not properly maintained, and require garbage to be transported long distances, we still prefer this option to burning garbage in large part because it is cheaper.
Another cultural contributor to why we prefer landfills is that in the US, we are very individualistic. We think about ourselves and what is best for us, rather than what is best for everyone. So, the idea that someone will pick up your garbage and take it somewhere else to get rid of it is appealing, even if that somewhere else is near another person’s house. We like the idea of never having to see or deal with our trash again, and don’t like the idea of having an incinerator near our house or in our town, even if they are completely safe and are in a part of town we’d never notice.
These aspects of American culture – thinking of the now and thinking of ourselves – also contribute to why we aren’t very good at recycling. Recycling costs money and takes time, and we would rather just throw everything in a landfill than worry about sorting through what should and shouldn’t be recycled. As a result, we let a lot of materials that could easily be recycled just go straight into the landfill, which is a waste of raw materials and takes up more space in the landfills themselves.
Japan and the US employ very different methods when dealing with MSW. While they are almost complete opposite methods, in both cases, we can see how great of an impact cultural and environmental factors have on ways different countries deal with MSW.
One of the more blatant lifestyle differences that I noticed upon arriving to Japan was the way they categorize common trash, or Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). The English translation on every trash can here denotes itself as a "combustible" or "incombustible." Instead of the USA, where a majority of our trash goes to landfills, in Japan, a majority of MSW is incinerated.
As an American, this took a second to adjust to. But now that I'm in an apartment where it's very important to separate our trash correctly, I've learned that:
Combustibles are food waste, and anything else denotedly burnable (such as paper)
Incombustibles: these are commonly divided up in the following two categories
Cans and bottles
Plastic packaging and trays
It's seemingly more complex than our system in the US, where the bright blue bins denote recycling. But the rules of recycling in the US are non-specific and are unclear to many people. I found this out many times in my high school's Environmental Club, where we would take out recycling bags that were full of sticky soda, food waste and still see piles of paper in the trash cans next to them.
From my experiences so far, it seems like there is much more responsibility taken on a personal level to throw away trash correctly. Combustibles and incombustibles taken for disposal appear to be much neater than the ones I've seen in the US.
(garbage to be picked up in New York City)
(recycling to be picked up in Japan)
As a result, recycling is a significant part of the waste stream in Japan. Japan's recycling rate for beverage cans is said to be 87.4% (Global Recycling Magazine). And Japanese total waste volume in the 2014 fiscal year was 437 Mt (million tons), with 89.9% industrial waste and 10.1% municipal waste. The amount of recirculated resources derived from this waste was 50.6% of the total waste volume. ("Current State and Trend of Waste and Recycling in Japan"). Efforts as seen in the data to separate things that can be recycled from combustibles allows for resource conservation and cleaner incineration processes.
Due to the discrepancies in culture among the various nations of the world, there are certain to be differences concerning policies dedicated to the management of municipal solid waste (MSW). After attending lectures, viewing resources, and having my own experiences with the methods in which MSW is dealt with, I have come to realize disparities that exist between MSW management in the United States and that of Japan. The divergence in the approaches of the United States and Japan can be connected to the amount of land occupied by each country, how each country utilizes its land, and the timeline of the establishment of MSW policies.
The most obvious reason for the differences in MSW policies between the United States and Japan is the fact that the United States possesses a significantly larger land area than Japan, with Japan being slightly smaller than the state of California. Not only is Japan smaller than the United States, but it also has a higher population density, which means that every bit of the nation’s available land must be utilized efficiently. Because of Japan’s inclination towards the maximization of the use of its land, it leans towards the usage of incineration to dispose of its MSW. Although land is still required for MSW incinerating facilities as well as for landfills for containing the ashes produced by these facilities, they occupy far less land in comparison to landfills in the United States. Not only are incinerators more space-efficient, but Japan even has some facilities that are aesthetically pleasing, such as the Maishima Incineration Plant in Osaka, which looks like it could be some type of theme park attraction.
Conversely, because of the expansiveness of the United States, we tend to use landfills as a major method of discarding MSW. Aside from the feasibility of landfills in the United States due to its considerable land area, landfills also exist as a capitalist venture, with the majority of landfills being owned by private companies, thus perpetuating their existence in a considerably money-driven society.
Although Japan favors the use of incineration, landfills still exist within the nation, though they are few and far between compared to the United States. However, Japan has attempted to implement this form of MSW disposal in a more sustainable manner through the creation of semi-aerobic landfills, which expedite the process of waste stabilization, thereby allowing the land to be reclaimed more quickly. The establishment of semi-aerobic landfills stems from the Japanese people’s need to utilize its limited land area to its maximum potential, as landfills that have been reclaimed are often used as parks or sporting grounds. This reclaimed land can even be employed in the progression of sustainable development, which is expressed by the construction of the Sokai Solar Energy Generation Plant on top of a repurposed landfill.
In addition to the difference between the land areas of the United States versus Japan as well as the variations among the ways in which these nations make use of their land, the United States and Japan also differ in the fact that the implementation of MSW management policies in Japan occurred over a longer timeframe than in the United States. Globally, steps towards the proper management of MSW disposal management were not taken until around the 1970s, but by the 1980s, the United States was essentially finished with establishing policies in this area. On the other hand, MSW management policy formation in Japan continued much into the 1990s and 2000s, encompassing topics including recycling and food waste. The fact that Japan was able to go above and beyond the United States’ efforts in the domain of MSW policy exhibits its ability to rally its population behind a common goal and its commitment to sustainable development. Attempts to pass more legislation concerning MSW management, as well as laws regarding sustainable development as a whole or even the environment, have been generally unsuccessful in the United States due to deep divisions that lie within American society. Some Americans believe that the economy and the environment exist at two opposite ends of the spectrum, so we can only commit to one or the other, which means that the United States usually places the environment and sustainable development on the back burner. However, the United States can gain inspiration from Japan as it has realized methods for promoting both its economy as well as sustainable development.
Environmental and cultural factors play large roles in the process of creating any type of policy, and that includes policies concerning the proper management of MSW disposal. In countries such as Japan, these elements may lead to the formation of more progressive and sustainable policies and practices. Conversely, although countries like the United States have made some efforts in the improvement of MSW policy, considerable development is still necessary in this domain. However, because of the vitality of appropriate methods for dealing with MSW to a prosperous society, it is critical that further steps are taken in this realm to ensure an elevated standard of living for both current people as well as future generations.
One of the biggest differences I have noticed in the US and Japan on this study abroad program (other than the culture and language) is how differently they treat trash disposal. Everywhere in Japan, from train stations to household garbage, bins are separated in a manner to make the recycling and incineration processes more efficient.
Municipal solid waste (MSW) is often called trash and is a term that includes everyday household wastes. The amount of MSW a person produces is a lot higher than what I expected it to be in the US (over four pounds a day), whereas Japanese produce a lot less (around 2 pounds a day). In Japan, from my observations, trash is often separated into combustible wastes, cans/bottles, newspapers/magazines, and plastics/PET and this system of trash separation is present in a majority of places. Whereas, in the US, trash disposal is often split into only two categories: non-recyclables and recyclables (but more often than not it is all mixed into the same bin). In Japan, most MSW is incinerated and in the US most MSW is put into a landfill.
What normal trash bin separation probably looks like in most of the US. (Image from transtech)
What normal trash bin separation looks like in most of Japan. (Image from Stock News USA)
Most of the Japanese trash bins are clearly labeled in Japanese and English to ensure that waste is disposed of correctly, as do American trash bins (the only issue is that a lot of trash bins in the US do not have separate sections for different types of garbage). Since Japanese trash bins are built in with a separation that almost all people follow it is easy for Japanese trash to get recycled appropriately, whereas American trash bins often have non-recyclable materials in the recycle bin and vice-versa which makes the process of recycling a lot more difficult and time-consuming.
Public waste is handled different between in the U.S. and Japan. Overall, Japan does a much better job in managing their solid waste than the U.S.. Especially in recycling and properly separating different kinds of waste, U.S. falls behind Japan.
In public places regarding trash, the U.S. has trash cans everywhere, whereas Japan has one trash can/unit almost every mile. In Japan though, despite the lack of trash cans, more times than not the Japanese trash cans are split into four bins: one for combustible trash, one for incombustibles, one for plastic, and one for aluminum cans. This promotes good and more recycle-friendly trash clearly to the public by separating it before the trash makes its way to the dump in order for the trash to be disposed of in the most sustainable and efficient way possible. This is not the case in America as you can find trash cans everywhere that are often overstuffed containing multiple kinds of trash with little care of the upkeep of the disposal methods of trash. Japan definitely wins in management of public trash, and this proves beneficial in the long run.
These methods of throwing out trash makes the availability of recycling and reusing trash much more convenient. In the U.S., since all kinds of trash are stuffed into trash cans every day, it’s hard to discern and separate trash at disposal companies and dumps to even be able to recycle or reuse any of the materials. Japan has a system where, as mentioned before, the trash is already separated by civilians, allowing disposal companies to use the trash to its potential, mainly in how it can possibly be used again. Recycling also helps with the waste stream in Japan by decreasing the overall quantity of waste stored or burned, encouraging citizens to produce as least amount of trash as possible. These practices put the U.S. to shame in sustainability standards, as Japan is on a much more positive track in better waste management in the future based on every day, public management/recycling methods provided to the public each day, as opposed to the less aware and less motivated culture in the United States, referencing waste management.
At this time, the U.S. would have to pull a lot of strings and implement a lot of policy in order to be on the same level of efficiency in waste management as Japan. However, I have hope in the U.S., and possibly if I get the chance, I can bring some of these practices I have observed in Japan back to the U.S. someday to get America on a better track towards increased sustainability in waste management and improved living standards for future generations.
Waste management in the U.S. and Japan are very different in many ways. In the general disposal, storage, and attitude of waste, the countries vary in their practices greatly, affecting the overall well being of the country and its future in how trash affects the coming generations
One difference is the set up in public places regarding trash. Contrary to the U.S. in having trash cans everywhere, Japan don’t have as many trash cans. However, most of the time, U.S. trash cans are just for general trash and often overflow because of the amount of all types of trash cans stuffed into the cans. In Japan, despite the low quantity of trash cans, each trash can usually has four different types of bins there; one for combustible trash, one for incombustibles, one for plastic, and one for aluminum cans. So, in spite of the difference of number of trash cans between the U.S. and Japan, Japan definitely trumps the U.S. in efficient separation of trash to recycle and dispose of it properly.
Another difference is the storage/elimination of waste between the two countries. In waste management, there are two main ways of eliminating waste (besides recycling and reusing obviously), incineration and storing it in a landfill. In the U.S. storing in a landfill is the more common method as one, we have the land area to have landfills, and two, in the U.S. buying land is cheaper than in Japan because again we have more of it, so it is sometimes cheaper than incinerating waste. In a complete 180, in Japan, incineration is the most used method of destroying waste. Japan has less habitable land than the U.S. making large landfills not really an option, leaving incineration as the only option. For both methods, they have their pros and cons because while they both can generate usable energy to use, they can also pollute the environment around them if not properly checked and maintained.
Overall, Japan still reigns king over the U.S. in waste management and overall sustainability. Another big problem in the U.S. that people have trouble accepting is just that the U.S.’s attitude about waste management is just not as productive as Japan. We are lazy with our trash and not taking into account of where the trash goes, what happens to it, or how it affects the environment. Meanwhile, Japan is recycling on the daily and looking up more ways to dispose of trash more sustainably. If the U.S. can get in the right mindset when talking about how to make waste management better, then I believe we can also be on the same level as Japan in our sustainability and efficiency.
As countries continue to develop and produce more waste, the importance of effectively dealing with trash only rises. Pollution and contamination can severely impede a country's growth so sustainable management of trash is, therefore, a necessity for the functioning of society. In order to work, however, trash disposal practices must factor the country’s unique environmental situation and culture, and this is particularly evident in Japan and the United States whose disposal methods have accommodated its respective society’s needs and values.
In Japanese culture, the word mottainai encompasses the practice of treasuring and using things for as long as possible. Interesting enough, this practice has carried out even its disposal practices where conserving resources and recycling is of high priority. This is shown in Japan's extensive disposal system and its valiant efforts to make use of all their resources. During my time here, I have noticed an emphasis on recycling plastic specifically, which is often used in bedding, carpets, as well as other household material. However, not only do cultural factors play a vital role in how trash disposal is managed, but environmental factors as well.
In Japan, there is simply not enough physical space to store trash, thus incineration serves as the main waste disposal method. After the trash is burned, the ashes are typically discarded in the ocean, where it is compacted to create additional islands. Rather than waste reducing available space, Japan, in fact, is able to grow on its waste. A prime example of this is seen with the construction of Kansai Airport, which was built upon compacted waste. However, incineration of trash requires careful division between combustibles and non-combustibles. Due to Japan’s collectivist culture, it is able to establish a norm of appropriately disposing of items. From the household level, there is an expectation that people will comply with the given rules and adhere to the community’s standards. People diligently follow the procedures laid out by municipalities. Thus, there is a system where individuals, municipalities, and waste management companies work cohesively in order for this system to function well. Because incineration has been a common practice in Japan, typical problems that arise with incineration sites such as overproduction of hazardous dioxins have been mitigated with the development of technologies. Mechanisms such as air filters severely reduce these dioxin releases, and other pollution control facilities have emerged to reduce any environmental repercussions.
Source: The National
Compared to Japan, incinerating trash in American society is a rare occurrence. Japan has up to 1263 incinerator sites while the United States has a mere 71. In the United States, despite efforts to encourage recycling, it is nearly impossible to motivate people to properly separate their trash, making incineration extremely difficult. Incineration sites are also far less culturally acceptable in the U.S., and former efforts to build incineration sites near residential areas has been met with severe public resistance. Only states, such as Florida, whose proximity to the water level has caused it to rely on incineration, as it is nearly impossible to create a safe landfill. Because the United States holds vast amounts of land, it can afford to dispose of its trash in large landfill sites. Landfills, by far, are the main sites for disposal, where approximately 52% of trash is sent.
Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
While both the United States and Japan are both highly developed countries, with strong economies, and cutting-edge technology, because of both environmental and cultural differences, their methods of disposal differ. Japan’s small land size and collectivist culture have lent itself to incineration disposal methods while the U.S.’s massive area and public disapproval for incineration sites have led to landfill usage. Although problems can arise with both methods, so far, each method has worked for its respective country and improvements are being made to make each method more sustainable.