The village of Kamikatsu sits among verdant rice fields and mountainous forest on the Western Japanese island of Shikoku. With less than 1,700 residents, it’s the smallest village on the island, but for the last few years, has been garnering headlines around the world.

For decades, the village had given little thought to processing its waste, either burning it in an open incinerator or burying it in the ground.

A failed new incinerator project, however, forced the village to rethink its strategy and a lofty ambition was born - to become a zero-waste town by 2020.

Today, more than 80% of the village’s waste is kept out of incinerators and landfill, but the transformation wasn’t easy or quick.

Lifestyle shift

Kamikatsu’s journey towards zero waste started more than two decades ago. The town had recently built, at great expense, a new incinerator to take care of its waste. But it was rendered a health and safety risk by the central government, because of the number of harmful dioxins it released into the air.

So the village had to think again. The most obvious solution was to shift the waste to other municipalities, but this was an expensive move, and it wasn’t a sustainable solution for the small economy.

Instead, the village decided to plough its efforts into reducing as much waste as possible, and the Zero Waste Academy, led by Akira Sakano, was born.

In practice, the idea is quite simple: waste gets separated into categories and wherever possible is reused, recycled, or reduced.

But while not necessarily revolutionary - after all, millions of streets around the globe offer up colour-coded bins to the local governments for collection on at least a weekly basis - Sakano’s scheme goes well beyond that.

Business and restaurants join the zero waste scheme
Image: Zero Waste Academy

For one, the rubbish is separated into at least 45 categories. At the top level, food waste, metals, paper, plastics, glass bottles, food trays, furniture, and machines all get separated.

Within that, there are often subcategories, so metal will get separated into aluminum and steel, or paper gets separated into newspaper, cardboard, paper carton, paper carton with aluminum (coated), hard paper tubes, paper cups, and shredded paper.

“By doing this level of segregation, we can actually turn it over to the recycler knowing that they will treat it as a high-quality resource,” explains Sakano, who is one of the Co-Chairs at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos this year.

She says it took some time to persuade the local population at first. Not only did they have to wash and sort their waste at home, but they were also expected to bring it to the waste-collection centre.

“It was a real shift in lifestyle,” she explains. “Lots of people were against the new collection system, asking why they had to bring their own rubbish to our waste-management site. They thought that the municipal government wasn’t doing its job properly.”

So the municipal office set about organizing gatherings in the local community where conversations could take place.

Kamikatsu elementary school 4th grade visiting us for the environmental study
Image: Zero Waste Academy

“They were dialogue and explanation sessions,” says Sakano. “And while there was still a bit of conflict, part of the community started to understand the context and cooperate, so the municipal office decided to start the segregated collection system. Once the residents saw that it had started, they realized that it wasn’t that difficult.”

Word got around and residential groups got behind the scheme, becoming both supporters and advocates. What started with a few, turned into the majority, and soon, pretty much everyone.

“You’ll now see people segregating around five to 10 categories in their house and then doing the final segregation at the station,” says Sakano.

Having wasted so much money on a defunct incinerator, the town had to think of a cost-effective setup.

The Zero Waste Academy operates under four Ls - local, low cost, low impact, and low tech. There is no big machinery here since residents put their own waste in the correct bin, while some ground staff has been hired to support the segregation and get the full bins ready to turn over to recyclers.

The scheme took off and, by the end of 2018, only 19% of the town’s rubbish had to be sent to an incinerator or landfill. But that wasn’t the only reason for its success.

Community matters

 Zero Waste Academy, Japan

It’s that trip down to the waste-management station - the one that so many residents were initially so skeptical of - that sets this recycling strategy apart.

Japan has a rapidly ageing population. Some feel so isolated and alone that they resort to committing crimes because they know that, in prison, they’ll have company. Because Kamikatsu is a small, close-knit community, the problem of isolation is not so great. But over half of the population is elderly, and the community gathering aspect of the waste center is critical to their wellbeing. It encourages them to engage with others, stay connected and feel part of the community.

With this in mind, the waste-management centre has deliberately morphed into a hub of the local community.

For instance, the onsite “kuru-kuru” (circular) shop takes clothing, tableware and sundries that are still useable, but no longer wanted by their owners, and gives them to others. People can also borrow more than 8,000 items of tableware every year, eliminating the need for residents to buy single-use plates and cups for special events.

There’s also an upcycling craft centre. Residents bring in old kimonos they don’t need, then the elderly, mostly local, women make products out of the discarded materials.

The Kuru-kuru shop
Image: The Zero Waste Academy

“Everyone in the town comes through the waste collection point anyway, so they come not only to discard their waste, but to see some of our stuff and talk with our staff. It’s not just waste collection but a gathering place for communities,” says Sakano.

Those that don’t have the means of transport to reach the centre can register at the local town hall and have their waste picked up.

“They see this not as a waste-collection service, but an opportunity to socialize with the younger generation and to chat. When we visit them, they prepare lots of food and we stay with them for a while, we ask how they are,” explains Sakano.

On occasion, they alert local services if the resident doesn’t answer the door as expected. In one case, the elderly inhabitant was lying prostrate and unmoving, so they called an ambulance for help.

“It’s almost like social welfare,” says Sakano. “It’s an opportunity for Japan to see waste collection services as something that connects with other functions of society, whether that’s good community engagement or policy targets.”

Image: The Zero Waste Academy

Global potential

Sakano believes it would be simple to replicate the idea globally - and says through seeing exactly what happens to their waste, residents understand the circular economy better and want to change their consumer habits.

“The specific elements of what we have is very much dedicated to our location and geography. But how the community is built and the basic idea of how you can move towards zero waste can be copied anywhere,” she says.

“The main issue with waste is that residents rarely have to think about what happens to it or where it goes; it’s invisible and out of sight, out of mind. But at the waste-collection centre, we report back on the exact amount that has been recycled, where it has gone and what’s happened to it.

“Here they see where it goes, what it will turn into, how much it costs to do that but also, how we can also sell some of the resources and make money for the town. It makes people consider, once they see the price or once they see this is recycled or this is not, that their actions make a contribution towards the town community as well as to future generations.”

The year 2020

As 2020 looms into view, Sakano ruefully admits that their target of 100% zero waste will not be possible without the contribution of the bigger system and wider stakeholders. She believes it’s now time to start pressuring others to contribute.

“Our target of 100% cannot be achieved while manufacturers continue to use non-recyclable products,” she says.

“Products need to be designed for the circular economy, where everything is reused or recycled. These actions really need to be taken to businesses and incorporate producers, who need to consider how to deal with the product once its useful life has ended.”

With that in mind, in 2016, Sakano started the Zero Waste Accreditation scheme, where local shops and businesses are given approval according to their effort to reduce waste and avoid as much unnecessary packaging and single-use items as possible.

“Local shops can make a big difference,” she says. “They are also consumers, they also purchase products and pass them down to their customers. If they change their purchasing and even stop using certain products, that feeds back to producers.”

Sakano’s ultimate dream is to see the programme replicated on a global scale. She says that that 80-90% progress towards zero waste is achievable - if towns and villages are creative.

“It’s important,” she urges, “no matter the obstacles, to keep striving to achieve the 100% goal. It’s important that world leaders now take their turn to make circular economy happen.”