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.
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.
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.
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.
In the United States, we often associate waste incineration with toxic fires and deadly fumes which single handedly ruin the atmosphere. Albeit somewhat true, we need to recognize that we are no better than countries using this method when it comes to MSW disposal. After all, dumping trash on a selected plot of land doesn’t do wonders for the environment, either. Though there is not yet an inherently “good” way to handle waste disposal, both landfills and incinerators do have their comparative strengths and weaknesses, and examining these differences may lead us to the more sustainable waste management we so desperately need.
Upon hopping off the plane in Japan for the first time with my empty cheez itz bag in hand, I became immediately aware of the lack of the one thing I needed in that moment: a trash can. Indeed, with street food and fast food at every corner and konbini at every turn, it would only seem rational to have trash cans every few feet, but they are almost nowhere to be found. Despite the lack of trash cans, there is also an incredible lack of trash lying around. The United States, however, has a plethora of both: trash littering the streets and trash cans everywhere you look. So how can it be that the two countries have such different situations, and more importantly, why? Perhaps it is a mutual unspoken respect for one’s surroundings in Japan that the States doesn't share; maybe it is from a geographical perspective- Japan doesn’t have room to be throwing trash on the street- but then, it could also be that each person is seen as responsible for their own trash, that they are expected to carry around their waste and dispose of it in their own homes. Though likely a combination of all the above and more, it is hard to really get to the bottom of it given Japan’s high context culture. To them, it is second nature to carry around trash without groaning about how inconvenient it is (though not so for our group).
Going back to the lack of waste baskets in Japan, on the off chance you are lucky enough to find a trash can, you may find yourself puzzled once again- why are there four cans with different symbols, and which one do I use? If you read Japanese or have ever seen a recycling bin, however, it is actually very easy to determine which bin takes what waste and it is expected that you sort your trash accordingly every. single. time. While it is equally as evident in America which bins take what, we tend to ignore those recycle signs and throw all our trash in whatever bin is closest. The problem with that aside from the laziness is that the closest one is often just that- one. There are not multiple bins for each kind of MSW at every site, normally just a trash can and, if you're lucky, perhaps a lone recycling bin, too. In America, we know where to put our trash, we just don’t do it because not every kind of waste basket is available to us, and we, sometimes understandably, cannot be bothered to search for a bin of the right sort.
These differences also play into large-scale MSW disposal. To recap, America thinks of incinerators and think of the Devil’s fire, but then we turn around and dump millions of tons of trash on otherwise usable land, something which would cause mass upheaval in Japan. America has one incredible advantage when it comes to using landfills: land. Japan has masses of people packed into small pockets of their land, but a large majority of their geography is made of mountains or other unusable land, so dumping trash on a large, usable area would be criminal to them. Japan rates as one of the best countries regarding having a long-term vision and planning for the future, so this solution really only makes sense for them, and it might not be a bad idea for the US to join the trend, too, as we begin running out of space for landfills. Although incineration is not without its faults regarding waste disposal, Japan is creating innovative ways to reuse the gas released from their incineration plants and turn their trash into treasure.
Waste management was never a topic I bothered to learn on my own out of personal interest. When I came to Japan in 2016 with my family, I never noticed their meticulous way of separating waste. At the hotels we stayed at, there was only one trash bin to dispose our waste in, and looking back, I don't recall ever separating my trash by incombustible and combustible. From then until now, waste management in regards to sustainable development has developed tremendously. These past few weeks, I have noticed the drastic difference in the disposal of municipal solid waste between the United States and Japan.
Known for its incineration facilities, Japan disposes their garbage by burning it using various furnace technologies. Each new development in furnace technology aims to increase power generation efficiency while reducing pollution. With Japan's extremely high population density, it is essential for them to make best use of their limited space. Although, a disadvantage of incinerating waste is that it emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which is detrimental to the environment. The United States, on the other hand, takes advantage of its spacious land by burying trash in landfills. While landfills do not produce greenhouse gas emissions, it is not necessarily beneficial to permanently dump waste wherever there is space.
In terms of waste disposal in day-to-day life, I can almost never find a trash can on the streets of Japan. It is troublesome to carry my ice cream wrapper or boba cup around all day until I return to the apartment, but the lack of trash cans has kept the streets extremely clean. You would think that people would be more inclined to litter, but with Japan's culture, they would not risk getting publicly shamed. In some areas, the vending machines do have their own disposal bin for the PET bottles. At Kobe University, it seems that there is always a set of four disposal bins stationed at every corner, with the distinct labels of: combustibles, cans, incombustibles, and PET bottles. At Georgia Tech, there are typically different bins for paper, plastic, cans, and more, yet these labels for recycling are still different from those in Japan. Trash cans are commonly found on the streets in America, but there is usually only one bin for disposing all kinds of trash. It is pretty rare to find a recycling bin unless you are at a university, public school, or perhaps a company building.
With Japan's sustainable efforts, recycling has greatly reduced the production of waste stream. With what seems like a million different bins to consider before throwing your trash away, Japan does come off as extremely nitpicky with their waste disposal, but this further encourages recycling so that many items can be repurposed. With less waste needing to be incinerated, there is then a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, waste control is not only necessary for tackling environmental issues such as land surface degradation and the depletion of natural resources, but it is, more importantly, necessary to build more sustainable communities.
Trash is an inevitability; every country produces tons of waste on a daily basis. Disposing of this waste has been an evolving and growing concern. Each country has its own method of dealing with this waste. Japan’s method of trash disposal is widely different than what I’ve seen in America.
Japan deals with their municipal solid waste mostly by incineration. Initially when I found this out, I was concerned with the toxic fumes emitted from burning garbage. According to the article “Solid Waste Management and Recycling Technology of Japan − Toward a Sustainable Society,” using new innovative technologies, the amount of dioxin released into the atmosphere is incredibly low. Japan has a few landfills scattered across the country, but they are rare. The landfills they do establish are semi-aerobic. Semi-aerobic landfills quickly stabilize after the land is completely filled, making them sanitary. Semi-aerobic landfills in Japan are converted into parks and fields. We had the privilege of visiting a landfill that was rehabilitated into solar fields. America incinerates some of the municipal waste, mainly food products. However, most of the U.S.’s garbage is stored in landfills. American landfills often turn into mountains, and cannot be reused as parks. America is able to do this due to the size of the country; there is a lot of open space in America where garbage can be dumped and left. This is not an option for Japan due to the limited land. As long as the toxic fumes are minimized, I would consider incinerating trash more sustainable since it prevents future generations from suffering. In many years, American citizens will have to deal with the mountains of trash.
In Japan, there are surprisingly few trash cans in public places. Usually, there are garbage cans around vending machines, bathrooms, and food shops, but not many other places. Despite this, there is very little litter around the cities. Japan is a shame culture, so littering would cause a perpetrator to lose face. In America, trash cans are much more available, but the amount of litter is also more frequent. Sometimes there is even trash on the ground when there is a garbage can nearby. Another difference between the waste disposal systems I have encountered is the separation of trash types. In Japan, there are usually three or four disposals next to each other: incinerated trash, P.E.T. bottles, cans, and other plastics. These bins are usually labeled in both Japanese and English. America usually only uses a general trash can for all waste. In more environmentally friendly places, a second garbage can is available for general recycling. On Georgia Tech’s campus, there are specific waste disposals for different types of trash, like cans, bottles, and newspapers. This is not the standard in America, unfortunately.
The separation of recyclables on the user end makes recycling much more efficient in Japan. Recycling is a higher priority for their population. Japan is also constantly improving their recycling processes by refining their recyclables and removing foreign contaminants. Americans usually recycle only when it is convenient. America recycled 67.8 million tons of waste in 2015 while the total generation of municipal waste in 2015 was 262.4 million tons. America recycled 25% of its waste, making it slightly ahead of Japan’s recycling rate of 20.8% in 2012. This is surprising given the amount of effort Japan puts into the separation of trash and recyclables.
Waste management is a global problem. To make a more sustainable world, trash solutions must continue to be developed. Japan’s answer of incineration is an immediate and attractive solution if the proper precautions and sanitary processes are used. America’s solution of landfills is less sustainable; they are not a long-term resolution. Japan’s lack of litter and separation of trash is also more impressive than the U.S. Despite this, America is more efficient at recycling municipal waste. If America could implement Japan’s separation of trash and adopt Japan’s priorities around trash disposal, recycling could become even more effective.
Over the past few decades, the amount of trash our society has generated has grown significantly. In an effort to preserve the environment, both the United States and Japan, both highly developed countries, have placed a tremendous effort into promoting recycling and reducing the amount of waste that is generated. However, through my time spent in both countries, it is clear that there are differences that exist in their approach to trash disposal.
Having traveled throughout Japan, it is evident that there are few trashcans in public areas. However, the streets remain in pristine condition as people carry their trash and dispose of it at home. Wherever there are trashcans, there are multiple containers where people can put their recyclable material. The trashcans are clearly labeled with pictures and diagrams, indicating the type of trash they contain. Typically, the containers are divided into plastic containers, bottles or cans, and combustible trash.
Trash cans at Kobe University.
Japan places great effort into properly separating trash. When I was in Hiroshima, I attended a festival where there were crowds of people celebrating. As I was walking along the streets, I noticed large trash containers that were being monitored by workers who were making sure the trash was correctly disposed of. Even in our Kobe University dormitory, there are trashcans that categorize specific materials, and these various types of trash have specific collection days and times. However, despite these efforts, I have noticed that there are not specific containers to dispose of cardboard or paper. These items tend to fall under the category of “combustible trash” and are incinerated with other trash. In the United States, although there is a greater presence of trashcans in public places, often times, they are not accompanied by a recycling bin. All trash tends to be placed in a single container. In areas that do encourage recycling, there is typically just a trashcan and a recycling bin to put all recyclable material. The material is not separated as thoroughly as it is in Japan.
A trash disposal area by Kobe University dorms.
Japan also has to tackle waste disposal from an alternate approach as there is a limited amount of space for large landfill sites. Waste management companies have thus resorted to incinerating their trash. Although in the past this has created an overproduction of dioxin emissions and has severely polluted the environment, new technologies have emerged to eliminate the dioxin in smoke. Other efforts such as using the heat generated from burning trash to produce electricity have increased the sustainability of Japan’s disposal of municipal solid waste. In the landfill sites that do exist, the landfills tend to be semi-aerobic, meaning that they provide partial exposure to natural air and contain pipes that help treat polluted water. This decreases the amount of greenhouse gases produced and allows the waste to stabilize faster so the area can later be transformed into areas such as parks. This was specifically seen at Sakai Solar Energy Generation Plant, which was formerly landfill site, but now holds thousands of solar panels. On the contrary, the United States has far more available land to serve as landfill sites and has disposed of the majority of its trash in these areas.
Solar panels at Sokai, a former landfill area.
Recycling, in all cases, decreases the waste stream that is produced. This is of particular importance in Japan because again, there is simply no space to hold a magnitude of trash. Japan’s densely populated cities make it even more imperative to reduce the amount of trash as high levels of trash could contaminate an area quickly. This, in turn, has impacted its disposal practices as trash is burned to reduce the amount of space it takes up. This has also led to its emphasis on recycling so that every material that is used does not go to waste.
As countries become greater aware of the impact waste can have on the environment, they have been placing a greater emphasis on reducing the amount of trash produced and creating laws to encourage reducing, reusing, and recycling. Although improvements can always be made in these systems, the United States and Japan have placed substantial effort to find a system that works for its own country’s needs.
After travelling through the Keihanshin and Greater Tokyo megaregions in Japan, it is easy to notice some differences between the two. Even though there are no formal boundaries to these two megaregions, you can still have an idea of which one you’re in by the differences in culture. While there isn’t one exact reason for these differences, it is likely that some of these are caused by varying locations and environments.
The Keihanshin and Greater Tokyo megaregions have multiple differences that I have either learned or noticed myself. The big one I learned about yesterday was the difference in language for the two regions. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this myself because I do not speak Japanese, but after being told, it is very obvious that completely different words are being used to mean the same thing. There are also some smaller differences I have learned about. For example, in the Keihanshin megaregion people stand on the right side of escalators while in the Greater Tokyo megaregion people use the left side. I’ve also experienced a difference in food in the two regions. For example, I ate Hiroshima’s famous style of okonomiyaki as well as okonomiyaki in Tokyo and they were very different from each other. An even smaller food difference that I learned about today has to do with bread in the two regions. Loaves of bred are sliced into six slices in Tokyo, but 5 slices in Keihanshin.
Similarly to Japan, the United States also has many different regional differences. They also can appear in things such as language and food. One iconic difference we talked about in class was accents such as the use of the word “y’all” in the south. In terms of food, I know there are many regional differences. For example, the northeast is notable for different seafoods and the south is known for their southern comfort food. Another regional difference I would say I’m familiar with is the idea of southern hospitality. This is the notion that southerners are usually nicer and more welcoming to other people.