Kamikatsu is a rural mountain town in Japan with a serious social issue: its population is both ageing and shrinking. Once a town of more than 6,000 people, now there are 1,717 (as of April 2015) – and this is expected to dwindle to two-thirds that number over the next five years.

However, for the past 30 years – even before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced “regional revitalization” in 2014 – the town has been developing its own unique and fun solutions. It has had remarkable successes, among them the implementation of a “zero waste” policy.

What is zero waste?

Zero waste is the vision to build a society that enjoys a sustainable rubbish-free lifestyle, with no need for incineration or landfill. The three Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle – are central to discussions about waste management, as are the four Ls – local, low cost, low impact and low tech. The science of waste management must be based on everyday life – and that’s why a small town such as Kamikatsu, which implemented 34 categories of waste separation and became a zero-waste pioneer, offers an example of best practice.

How did it all begin?

Kamikatsu is the smallest town on Shikoku Island, and the fifth-smallest town in Japan, at least in terms of population. Once, the townspeople burned rubbish outside their houses or dumped it on their farms. That was when there were no plastics to worry about and no culture of waste collection.

Once the Japanese economy changed and consumption of packaged, disposable goods was widespread, residents set up a landfill and open incineration space in the town. Everyone brought their rubbish, whatever it was, to the burning hole; a practice that continued until the late 1990s.

However, the town was under strong pressure from the national government to stop burning rubbish on an open fire and start using an incinerator. So the town built one. However, the model was soon banned following health concerns about the dioxins it produced. Not only did the town lose out by building a useless incinerator, but it lost money by having to pay large sums to use the facilities of a nearby town.

Degrees of separation

Kamikatsu had to come up with a new solution. It researched cases around the world and eventually focused on recycling, because by separating waste into categories, the residents realized they could turn it into a resource.

The town started with nine categories of waste separation; in 2002, the number of categories grew to 34. It’s the largest number in Japan, and most probably in the world. What is also significant is that all organic waste is managed within each household and recycled 100%. Many residents own their farms and make their own fertilizer; others buy the local compost, four-fifths of which is subsidized by the town office.

There are no rubbish trucks in Kamikatsu; people take their waste to the town collection centre and separate it into the various categories by themselves. Inside the centre, 60 different spaces and boxes help people to improve their sorting skills. Each space or box is labelled to show where it will be recycled, what it will become and how much it will cost (or earn) in doing so. The centre is visited not only by elementary and junior high schools but also students and organizations from all over the world. The town’s visitor numbers have shot up to more than 2,500 per year, as of 2014.

Recyclable versus burnable

Japan’s primary waste divide is between burnable and non-burnable. Considering the limited land space and concerns over sanitation, incineration is the nation’s preferred method of disposal. Thanks to its rapid technological development, Japan now has the world’s safest and cleanest incineration technology.

However, the development of a high-tech incinerator is encouraging the continuous production and consumption of “disposable” products. If we are to create a society with sustainable resources, we must find a way to prioritize recycling over burning. As well as, of course, expanding the range of action towards reuse and reduce initiatives.

The next challenge

In 2003, Kamikatsu declared its Zero Waste Ambition. Besides preserving the natural environment for future generations, the town aimed to:

  1. Raise the ecological consciousness of individuals
  2. Be producing no waste for incineration or landfill by 2020, by accelerating the reuse and recycle model
  3. Forge links with like-minded communities around the world.

As of the beginning of 2015, Kamikatsu has been achieving a recycling rate of almost 80%. This is based on the waste coming into the collection centre, not the waste in all households, which would make the percentage even higher. The town also has a kuru-kuru shop (“circular” in Japanese), where residents can bring in used items and take things home for free. It also has a kuru-kuru factory, where local women make bags and clothes out of discarded clothes. The centre and these facilities are managed and operated by a local non-profit organization called Zero Waste Academy.

The next step is to prevent waste production altogether. This should involve not only the townspeople but also businesses, both in and out of town, involved in material production and supply. In 2015, the people of Kamikatsu created a roadmap for achieving zero waste by 2020. In working together and coming up with innovative solutions, they are already well on their way.

Author: Akira Sakano is Co-Founder and Communication Director of RDND LLC and a Global Shaper.

Image: Different coloured trash cans are seen in Brasilia June 14, 2014. REUTERS/Paul Hanna