Japan's Waste Management Situation

The last time I visited Japan, as the vice chair of the recycling and waste minimisation working group, was also associated with an ISWA event, the 7th International Congress and Exhibition in 1996. This time I was representing ISWA at the CSD Inter-sessional Conference on Building Partnerships for Moving towards Zero Waste, held in Tokyo between 16-18 February hosted by the Ministry of Environment of the Government of Japan.

The last time I visited Japan, as the vice chair of the recycling and waste minimisation working group, was also associated with an ISWA event, the 7th International Congress and Exhibition in 1996. This time I was representing ISWA at the CSD Inter-sessional Conference on Building Partnerships for Moving towards Zero Waste, held in Tokyo between 16-18 February hosted by the Ministry of Environment of the Government of Japan. It brought together representatives of international organisations (of which ISWA was one) and donor agencies, private sector operators, local authorities and the community sector. The focus was on building partnerships so that municipal authorities can have greater capacity, ideally through integrated waste management turning waste into resources, and adoption of the 3Rs.

Because households in Tokyo have to put their waste out in translucent bags segregated into three types: bulky wastes, packaging and paper, combustible and non-combustible, at a place shared by 10-20 households, the discipline of separation at source is reinforced among residents. In addition, citizen groups collect paper for recycling and local fund raising, and because Japan’s definition of waste is different to many other places, calculating the reclamation rate for MSW becomes more difficult.

Japan’s definition of waste is “discarded materials which cannot be sold to other people”. Therefore the statistics for Japan often look different to MSW statistics in other countries, although the non-municipally collected recyclables are often added back in to provide a more comprehensive picture of recycling activities. Therefore, in 2008 for Japan as a whole, with a population of 127 million, more than double that of the UK, France or Italy, for example, there were 2.34 million tonnes of recyclables collected by municipalities, 4.51 million reclaimed by intermediate treatment and 2.93 million collected by citizens’ groups, totalling 9.78 million tonnes or 20.3% of Japan’s MSW.

The figure for reclamation via intermediate treatment is impressive. Nearly all of Tokyo’s waste goes through some form of intermediate treatment in order to ensure that wastes are sent in the most appropriate direction: recycling, energy recovery or landfill. Therefore the amount of waste sent to landfill is decreasing dramatically and in addition, there is a smaller amount of waste being generated in the first place, reinforcing the first of the 3Rs principles.

ISWA had already signed up to be a partner in UNEP’s Global Partnership on Waste Management initiative. The new initiative will be run in synergy with the Tokyo CSD Inter-sessional Conference on Building Partnerships for Moving towards Zero Waste conference, aimed at establishing an international partnership for expanding waste management services of local authorities (IPLA). In this it succeeded because many organisations were happy to support its objectives, including ISWA.

Subsequent to my visit to Japan and writing this piece, our ISWA colleagues, families and friends in Japan have been affected by the dramatic consequences of the unprecedented earthquake and resulting tsunami. On behalf of the global ISWA family I wish to extend our sympathy to them and our hope for a swift recovery from this catastrophe.

Jeff Cooper
President, ISWA

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