Social Innovation

Why Japan's streets are spotless

A Japanese Greenbird Paris volunteer displays her gloves before clearing litter at Place de la Concorde in Paris April 19, 2009. A group of Japanese expatriates staged a clean-up action at the famous Champs Elysees avenue on Sunday as part of a monthly campaign to make the French capital a cleaner place for the many thousands of Japanese tourists who come to one of the most visited cities in the world.   REUTERS/Thomas White   (FRANCE ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY) - RTXE5GW

Spotless streets have become a noticeable part of Japan’s culture Image: REUTERS/Thomas White

Charlotte Edmond
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The absence of rubbish bins on Japan’s streets is a bit of a mystery to many tourists. There are numerous posts on online forums asking about it and Tripadvisor even highlights the fact visitors may struggle to dispose of their trash.

There is, of course, a reason for this dearth of dustbins.

With Japan’s rapid industrialization in the post-war years, waste started to become a major problem. Tokyo in particular was throwing out so much that it was running out of landfill space.

A series of waste management laws in the 1990s targeted the problem, introducing strict recycling laws and clamping down on what could go into landfill.

A bulldozer scrapes up piles of empty plastic bottles at a recycling plant in Tokyo August 19. Worries about the safety of tap water are boosting sales of bottled water and tea in Japan, leaving piles of empty plastic bottles behind in a country that is already running out of garbage dumps. Industry officials estimate consumption of small-sized PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles will reach 3.5 billion to four billion units this year, nearly the double the 2.2 billion used last year and compared with a more 640 million in 1996. Picture taken 19AUG98.ST/CC - RTRGJ8A
Image: REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama
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Not littering has become part of Japan’s culture: most Japanese people will take their rubbish home with them rather than dispose of it when out and about.

Don’t walk and eat

Another cultural quirk has an impact too: the Japanese don’t walk and eat. The country has something of a love affair with vending machines, resulting in a mind-boggling array of food on offer. Street food is also popular, and most people will stand still and eat food where they bought it.

There are often rubbish bins near vending machines and it’s not unusual to hand your packaging back to the street-food seller.

A man walks past vending machines of Asahi Soft Drinks in Tokyo December 1, 2008.   REUTERS/Stringer (JAPAN) - RTR23X8G
Image: Reuters

Bins galore

But don’t be fooled into thinking this means Japan has an aversion to dustbins - far from it. At home, they form an important part of the domestic routine.

The Japanese are the kings and queens of recycling, with much of their trash divided and subdivided into different types. "Gomi guides" for each town outline what can be recycled where and when, and can run to tens of pages.

Japan recycles about 77% of its plastics, according to its Plastic Waste Management Institute, almost double the level of Britain, and well above the 20% currently managed in the United States.

Image: PWMI

In fact one small town has embraced recycling to such an extent that it has become a minor tourist attraction.

Kamikatsu, which has a population of just over 1,700, is aiming to become a "zero waste" town by 2020.

Careful recycling means the town is already saving 80% of its non-organic waste from landfill, with people separating their rubbish into over 40 different categories.

And, as you would imagine, on the streets of Kamikatsu there’s hardly any litter at all.

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