Recycling in Japan: A How-To Guide

So here’s something I learned the hard way. When I last visited Japan and stayed at my wife’s parents’ home1 and I wanted to help around the house since I eat all their food, and create a load of laundry every time I am there. So, I tried to help out with the garbage and kitchen, and that’s how I learned the hard way how recycling works in Japan.

Policies around recycling will vary city by city, but my wife’s parents live near Tokyo in the city of Kawasaki, so I presume Tokyo will be similar. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong. Anyhow, in Japan you’ll often see products marked with things like this:

Recycling in Japan

The mark is kami or “paper”, while プラ is short-hand for plastic. Obviously, if you see the “paper” symbol, it means you recycle as paper, and plastic for plastic. For example, if you have a yogurt cup, the cup itself would be “paper”, and the lid might be “plastic”, so you have to separate them and put them in different bins.

Also, P.E.T. bottles (plastic bottles for juice, water, etc) are often recycled separately from both of these. These are called petto botoru (ペットボトル) or just petto for short and frequently used for juice or tea drinks. Since there’s so many vending machines in Japan, it’s usually easy to find places to recycle your PET bottles, but for some reason it’s really hard to find other trashbins and recycling in Japan. So for trash items you often times have to just keep it in your bag or purse, and recycle it at home.

One thing I noticed is that recycling in Japan is kind of strict out of necessity because land for landfills is very limited. In Seattle, all recycling can be dumped in the same bin (they sort it later), but in Japan you have to separate everything by type. Paper cannot mix with plastic, and PET bottles cannot be mixed with other plastic. Also, I think lids and straws have be further separated, and possibly thrown away, but I can’t recall. Also, I think each household is issued special garbage/recycling bags for use too. I think this is because of the way garbage/recycling is processed; only certain types of bags will work.

Anyway, if you’re living in Japan, it’s good to get familiar with the local recycling policies in your area. Many major metropolitan areas have websites and/or training courses for foreigners new to the city, so definitely take advantage of those. A lot of neighborhoods have a communal trash pickup place, schedules, policies, etc. So, if you don’t want to annoy your neighbors, you should get familiar with the policies there pretty quick.2 But it’s not just about that, it’s about being a good guest in someone else’s country. 🙂

Anyhow, this is just a few tips to help foreigners living in Japan based on my learned experience getting scolded over and over again about putting things in the wrong bags and bins. 😉

P.S. Seoulistic.com has a helpful site on recycling in Korea too, which has a lot of points in common.

1 This is jikka (実家) in Japanese, but if you’re takling about someone else’s home, it’s more appropriate to be polite and say go-jikka (ご実家). On the other hand, it’s quite rude to refer to your own home with the go- prefix. Just be careful. 🙂

2 Because Japan is dense, and people live very close together, you really don’t want to annoy your neighbors. 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “Recycling in Japan: A How-To Guide”

  1. I learned about this from the Tokyo episode of Trashopolis and found it very intriguing. At one point there was an older couple demonstrating how they separate their trash and recycling by following a laminated chart. They also talked about the fines you can get for not recycling or doing it wrong. It was by far the best episode of Trashopolis I’ve ever seen. And the only one I’ve seen where the city is totally on top of things and aware of what they do for the environment.

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  2. It’s nostalgic reading this. I remember Japan’s insane recycling, My dorm was so complicated, I usually just brought all my stuf down and sorted it then rather than trying to keep track of 5-7 different bags of different types of trash.

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  3. @Ashley: I have never heard of fines, at least for individuals. The only thing I have seen is that the trash collectors will not take anything that is wrong. They put a scoldy note on the bag, like ‘This is not burnable trash! Please dispose properly!’ I suppose it is possible that businesses might be fined for trash misconduct.

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  4. Hi Doug,

    Japan recycled 72% of PET bottles in 2010, compared with 48% in Europe and 29% in the US….
    …. but, wherever you are, using a PET bottle in the first place is a crime against the environment.
    Even if it gets recycled, that still uses up resources that the planet can hardly afford.

    Remember, ever single bit of plastic that has ever been produced, still exists. With tonnes and tonnes of it in microscopic particles in our water.

    Rather than using a PET bottle to buy a drink (which has had to be transported from goodness knows where using fosil fuel to do so), use tap water, or make tea, use a metal or other long-life flask.

    All the best,

    Marcus

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/29/japan-leads-field-plastic-recycling

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  5. Hi Everyone!

    Ashley Løseth I think they’re on top of it only out of necessity. I get the feeling that most people in Japan are doing it because they have to (hence I hear lots of Japanese grumbling about it), and less because they’re “eco-friendly”. Then again, I do know lots of Japanese who are eco-friendly too.

    kelleynymph Hello and welcome to the JKLLR! That’s a good idea actually. In a dorm that would work, though at my wife’s house, they need to separate it first and then take the bags to the communal curb.

    Johnl Yeah, that’s what seems to happen in my wife’s neighborhood too. Not fines so much as warnings and reminders, and they won’t take your trash. Naturally if you’re in a crowded neighborhood where everyone knows everyone, you don’t want to be the silly person who has their trash left behind.

    Marcus Yeah, at work, I’ve gotten into a habit of bringing a bug mug to work so when I drink water and such, I just use the mug, instead of the paper cups. Before that i was using about 8-10 cups a day between water and coffee.

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