Despite the inconvenience of stacking up piles of garbage in our home while waiting for the appropriate day to put it out, we, like everyone in our neighborhood, have faithfully separated our garbage in compliance with the new regulations which started last November. Thus, when I read Margaret Tweet's piece about plastics being burnt together with burnable garbage at the garbage facility, I felt somewhat confused. Why had I been going to all that trouble, believing I was doing my bit for the environment by following the local government's entreaties to obey the rules and help protect it? So, I decided to phone the city garbage facility and ask them myself about the matter. I spoke with two representatives on different occasions and was told that cans, glass bottles, and pet bottles are definitely recycled. They confirmed that plastics are incinerated. (At one point, they told me that plastics were considered burnable, to which I replied that just less than a year ago, before the new regulations came out, they were termed non-burnable.) When I pointed out that it seems meaningless to ask the public to separate plastic and burnable garbage when the two are actually being burnt together, I was told that there are basically two reasons for this. One is that there are as yet no facilities in Tsukuba for recycling plastic products. Such a system is expected to be put in place some time in 1999. Until then, plastics have to be burnt, which brought us to reason number 2: the dioxin problem. The employee explained that since it has not yet been fully proven that dioxins are a problem, for now it is okay to burn plastics. All this had still not answered my question as to why we are presently required to separate plastics from burnable garbage. The answer this time? Of course, to get the public into the habit of separating the two, in preparation for 1999. So that explains it!
Apart from the reasoning concerning the dioxin problem, I find most of what I was told acceptable. Nevertheless, I still cannot help feeling cheated by the local government, whose directives about garbage disposal we follow in good faith, but which are, after all, a hypocrisy.
I saw in the May issue of the Alien Times that Margaret Tweet is asking for experiences of recycling in other countries. As a "gaijin" in Japan for the first time, I have some impressions I would like to share with readers and suggestions to improve garbage handling and recycling. My experiences are from my home country of Sweden and also from Brazil, where I worked for a long time. The following points are from what I put together for the meeting between the "Citizen's Group for Establishing New Tsukuba City" and city officials.
1. Start at the right end. This means you must have centers that receive the separated items. People will not be motivated to separate their garbage if the various items are later to be burned together anyway. (In Sweden, the factories producing a product are by law obliged to provide for its recycling.)
2.Reduce the number of categories for separation. Curitiba in Brazil has received two environmental awards from the United Nations because they have succeeded so well in recycling garbage in spite of having a high percentage of illiterates in the population. (Ed. Note: Most of us foreigners here don't fare any better when it comes to Japanese!) They have just two categories, compostable and non-compostable. As an aside, when I see how the beautiful Japanese countryside is being littered, I think even one category would be an improvement, since an important goal would be achieved just by getting the garbage disposed of in the proper place! Perhaps more garbage bins at public places would help. When I'm in Tokyo, I often can't find any garbage bins and so I have to ask a shop-keeper to take care of my ice cream wrappers, banana peels, etc. that are too sticky to put in my pocket or carry elsewhere. At vending machines, there are sometimes bins for cans, but almost never for "others", as such rare bins are labeled.
3. Outside our apartment, we have a garbage disposal cage that is in two sections. It is made of metal netting, which prevents animals from messing up the garbage. What I would like to see, however, is for a roof overhead and signs clearly indicating what goes where.
4. In Sweden, beverages are sold only in containers that can be reused or recycled. To motivate the consumers to return the containers, an additional fee is charged at the time of purchase. This deposit is repaid when the container is returned. The system works well, partly because kids want extra money and pick up any empty cans and bottles which have been thrown away.
5. Pay special attention to harmful waste, particularly garbage containing heavy metals like nickel-cadmium and mercury batteries, fluorescent tubes, rechargable tools, oil, garbage containing cadmium, lead and chromium, such as in colored plastics and electrical equipment. Note that all fluorescent tubes contain mercury!
6. Why is it necessary to buy plastic bags specifically to dispose garbage in? Even if I bring my own shopping bag and refuse to accept the plastic bags from the supermarket, I still end up with a large stock of plastic bags. Wouldn't it be possible for the supermarkets to print their logos on bags that are suitable for garbage disposal? In Sweden, we use such bags for garbage disposal and to reduce excessive use, there is a charge at the supermarket for each plastic bag that is used.
7. The burning of garbage outside private houses should be banned. Garbage that the housekeeper can dispose of personally would make good compost for the garden. Plastics, rubber, etc. should be burned at very high temperatures with proper smoke cleaning equipment in order to be completely burned with little or no heavy metals being despursed to the environment.
One thing I have notice from my experiences is that environmentally conscious inhabitants in Sweden are forcing companies and politicians to change their production processes and regulations to take the environment into consideration, while in Japan it seems to be mainly the authorities who are realizing the necessity to protect the environment. Unfortunately, the educated people at universities and research institutes are not often at the forefront in recycling matters. This spring, my own university in Sweden realized that it is not enough to just teach about and do research on the environment, but that the daily activities at the university itself must also protect the environment. When, however, I proposed that my research institute here in Tsukuba should do away with "waribashi" disposable chopsticks and use recyclable ones, I got a negative response. We need to "practice what we preach".
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