One of the first noticeable differences from the US that I saw after coming to Japan was the public waste disposal system. Trash cans are not as widely present as in America, but they are always kept tidy and neat. More importantly, almost every waste disposal system has at least 3 sections: one for bottles and cans, one for plastic products, and one for combustible products. Despite these waste disposal locations not being as prevalent as in the US, Japan’s culture of group harmony means that nobody litters but holds onto their garbage until they are able to dispose of it properly. While this is sometimes a hassle, it is an improvement to having streets littered with trash as can be seen in many places throughout the US. Also, all trash receptacles are clearly labeled in multiple languages about which trash goes in which receptacle, so it is generally straightforward as to what type of trash goes where.
The waste disposal system also differs after consumers throw away their garbage. Since Japan is a small island nation, there is little space for landfills and therefore waste products are generally treated before being disposed at landfill sites. These landfills also can be repurposed, as we saw at the solar power plant (pictured below). Prior to the 1970s, waste material in Japan was dumped into anaerobic landfills or burned, producing large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. More recently, Japan has used semi-aerobic landfills, which supplies air to landfills underground, which reduces flammable gas production while stimulating the decomposition of organic matter, leading to a faster stabilization of the landfill.
An important aspect of the waste management system is to keep different types of waste material separate, as different waste products need to be treated differently before disposal or reuse. In the recycling process, plastic bottles are collected separately, initially from consumers or local municipalities. Afterwards, specific corporations receive recycled waste to create recycled products. At these recycling businesses, recycled products are cleaned, and bottle caps and labels are removed. After sorting, the plastics undergo many processes, being crushed into flakes, and transformed into one of many different forms, such as resins or fibers. The differing disposal methods of materials in Japan require that consumers, rather than companies, do all the sorting of the main types of waste material, which considerably decreases the stress on the waste management companies. The willingness of Japanese consumers to properly dispose of their waste materials is a major part of the functionality of the country’s waste disposal system, which is something that we do not see as extensively in the US. With certain cultural or institutional changes, perhaps US consumers would be more willing to sort and properly dispose of waste material.