recycling in Japan
ECO LIFE IN JAPAN

Recycling in Japan: Where Does Our Waste Go?

July 26, 2019

Before I start telling you about one of Kyoto’s waste management facilities, and recycling in Japan in general, I have a confession. Waste fascinates me! I have always wondered what happens to garbage bags after they leave my house. Where does this waste go? How is it handled? What does the future hold for it? From my perspective, this garbage bag doesn’t exist anymore, whereas in reality, it doesn’t just disappear, does it?

Waste disposal and recycling in Japan is very different compared to Israel. In many cities in Israel there are different garbage bins for different recyclable materials, such as paper, plastic, and so on. In contrast, the system of recycling in Japan works differently. There are specific days in which you’re supposed to dispose of your recyclable and non-recyclable waste. The garbage must be left in a designated area on the fixed day before 8am, then the local municipality takes it. For example, I need to put out my plastic waste every Wednesday morning. The requirements don’t end here– in Kyoto there are specific bags in which you dispose each and every kind of waste (yellow for burnable waste, and transparent for recyclables such as PET bottles, cans, plastic, etc.).

Regardless, neither Israel nor Japan can make waste disappear. It has to end up somewhere, recycled or not. While it is quite obvious where the burnable waste goes, where does the recycling in Japan end up? A few weeks agoI had the opportunity to follow the journey of Kyoto’s waste – sounds lovely, right? I found myself with other curious participants on a tour to Yasuda Sangyo Groups waste management facilities.

Recycling in Japan

Introducing Yasuda Sangyo Group

Yasuda Sangyo Group consists of six recycling companies. They manage and recycle waste from all over the Kansai area of Japan. However, Yasuda is not the only company that manages and recycles waste in this area; there are three other large companies dealing with waste management as well. The main difference is that Yasuda Sangyo has no incineration centers. Waste incineration consumes a lot of energy, so they avoid it. In addition to these four larger companies, about 100 smaller waste management companies also operate in the Kansai area.

Yasuda sangyo staff

A tour of the waste management facilities

I registered for the tour along with some students participating in École De Kyodai, a project of Kyoto University that seeks to raise ecological awareness. Besides students, there were many other people participating in the tour, including some representatives of commercial companies. Everyone had great interest in knowing more about the process of recycling in Japan. In total, there were about 30 of us. The tour was organized by a group of Japanese researchers in the field of waste management. Although it was held in Japanese, Yasuda’s employees were kind, patient, and did their best to explain the processes to me 😊

Yasuda sangyo
Yasuda sangyo

Our first stop was Eco No Mori waste facility center, which is owned by one of Yasuda’s companies. When we arrived, we were taken to the lecture room of the facility. There was an introduction to Yasuda Sangyo Group and we received some cute souvenirs! We got a cap and a towel with the Yasuda Sangyo emblem – a cute little witch. There are stickers of the witch on all the company cars, and she can be found on toilet paper and tissues that the company produces from recycled paper. Whenever you’re in the Kyoto area and see this little witch, you’ll know what company it represents! 😃

Yasuda sangyo

Giving waste a new life

As someone who is not a waste-management expert, I can totally relate to those of you wishing for me not to use professional, complicated terms. No worries guys! I want to keep this post simple, telling you about the operations and processes without linking you to Wikipedia every other sentence.

recycling in Japan

After a short introduction we went to see the real thing – the recycling process! We started with aluminum cans. First, they compress the cans into cubes that weigh one ton (each of them costs around $14,000!). Then, the cubes are put into a 400 degree-Celsius tank whichbreaks down the cans into littlealuminum particles. These particles will then be remade into new aluminum cans, or various other aluminum products.

Afterwards, we went to the place that collects paper and plastic. As we were arriving there, I was wondering – why are they collecting both of these materials together? It turned out that it is repurposed as solid fuel! It’s called RPF (Refuse Paper&Plastic Fuel), and it is used as a replacement to oil and coal. That was a fascinating surprise! Let me skip sophisticated terms like calories (yep, it was also my first time hearing the term ‘calories’ in relation to something other than nutrition), and how long it can burn – they utilize these materials to produce energy, and that’s what’s important.

recycling in Japan
recycling in Japan

RPF (Refuse Paper&Plastic Fuel) chunks

recycling in Japan

At the next location we were introduced to biodegradable waste (organic waste) management. This mainly consists of leftover food that we throw away. I’m not going to lie – the smell was quite intense, even though I was wearing a surgical mask, like the Japanese often do. The machines in this facility separate the organic waste from the plastic bags (usually it’s disposed in a plastic bag), to then make animal food out of it. The plastic bags are usually used for RPF.

Yasuda sangyo
raw waste

Following this, we went to the cardboard collection center. Cardboard is usually recycled to be… cardboard! Actually, it hardly goes through any process at all. If parts are dirty, they are removed and not used. Essentially, it’s not even recycling, but reusing.

recycling in Japan
recycling in Japan
recycling in Japan

Tatami !

Have you ever walked on a tatami in Kyoto or anywhere in the Kansai area? Nice! Maybe it ended up in Yasuda Sangyo’s facilities too – since they also collect tatami. I guess only Japanese recycling centers would have Tatami. They dismantle it and use it for wood chips (which is commonly used as a core component of tatami mats).

tatami recycling

Other wood waste that arrives at Yasuda’s facilities also goes through the same process and is turned into wood chips. Some of these chips end up as RDF (Refuse-Derived Fuel) chunks. It’s just like RPF, which contains paper and plastic, but RDF also contains wood chips.

recycling track
recycling in Japan

RDF (Refuse-Derived Fuel) chunks

RECYCLING IN JAPAN

Although it seems like Yasuda Sangyo recycles everything, they don’t handle electronic waste. Sometimes they’re asked to empty buildings – like apartments, for example. In this case, they recycle what they can in their facilities, and the electric waste is sent to companies that do handle it. Although they can’t recycle electronics, there are so many items they do recycle. As a result I got the chance to see many kinds of waste recycling and reusing processes.

electronic recycling
electronic recycling

What about the future?

We ended the day as we started it – in one of the companies’ lecture rooms. All of the participants of the tour were sat around a large oval table. A Yasuda’s representative then held a lecture about their future goals and sustainable development plans. In addition, even the CEO came to personally thank each and every one of us for participating in the tour. This tour was organized so well – it exceeded my expectations!

One more point worth mentioning – Yasuda Sangyo Group’s facilities do not represent all waste facilities in Japan. It might be that other waste facilities operate differently.

Now you’re probably asking for my conclusion of the day? Well, it seems like our garbage goes on quite a journey after we throw it away. Above all, the good part is that some of it gets a new life and continues to be utilized, which is obviously better than being piled up somewhere.

Still, I have to admit that the process of recycling consumes a lot of energy. Therefore, I believe that the best option is to reduce our consumption, and avoid buying things we don’t need in the first place. You can find some plastic-reduction tips here. If we have bought something and have no more use for it –  recycling is a must, so this waste will get a decent new life.

How about you?
Have you ever been able to give your waste a ‘new life’?
Did you learn something new about recycling in Japan?
Let me know in the comments!
 

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