Photo Source- CNN article: "Trash City"
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.