The Japanese government regulates the classification of consumer waste and recyclables very meticulously. In 2001, it even passed a law “requiring retailers and manufacturers to take back used air conditioners, televisions, washing machines and refrigerators”–the first such “take-back” law, according to the industry journal WasteAge.
My impression is that about 30% of Japanese industry is packaging, and another 30% is deconstruction of consumer waste. In the grocery stores, you can find a single onion–or lemon, or unwashed celery stalk, or whatever–individually packaged. I suppose the stick-on price tag causes unacceptable damage to the perfect surfaces of the fruits or vegetables on display.
Metal food and drink containers are marked as either recyclable steel or aluminum. Beverage cans are just as likely to be steel as aluminum in Japan, while they are nearly 100% aluminum in the U.S., but Japanese consumers recycle their aluminum at higher rates than Americans do.
The tag on a tiny package of food or drink will carry separate recycle labels for both the paper tag and the plastic container. Plastics are further marked as either PET (polyethylene tenephthalate) bottles, PP (polypropelene), PE (polyethylene), or more generic プラ (pura ‘plastic’) wrap.
The first major hint we got, after we moved into our nice apartment in Ashikaga, that practice might not accord with theoretical ideals was our attempt to find out what to do with general plastics. Communities differ in their recycling capabilities. Not all can handle all categories. The illustrated poster in our lobby (here’s an English example PDF from a major metropolitan neighborhood in Tokyo) gave very detailed instructions about what kind of waste products get picked up on which days of the week or month, but said nothing about general plastics. Nor could we find any separate place for them in the trash room where residents leave their sorted and bagged waste.
Well, it turns out that plastic wrapping in Ashikaga is just another class of burnables. Most public trash bins in train stations broadly classify waste–other than drink containers–into burnables and nonburnables. (Newsprint often has a separate bin as well.) However, people are often extremely careless about what they put in these public receptacles, or frustrated at the lack of other options, and the clean-up crews must spend a good deal of time re-sorting the contents of each bin. The same goes for the variety of items that often end up in the can and bottle bins next to most of the streetside vending machines.
Two plentiful items, styrofoam containers and milk cartons, can only be recycled at grocery stores in most communities, it seems. But the receptacles in front of the stores I’ve seen have required consumers to cut the milk cartons apart, rinse them, and hang them out to dry before putting them in the recycle bins. All other containers, too, are supposed to be rinsed out before recycling. Japanese recycling depends crucially on the country’s abundance of water.
Just as I was finishing up this post, a sound truck drove down the street below our building blaring, not political messages (as is usual in the days before an election), but instructions for how to stop the van and turn over hazardous items like batteries and spray cans.