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Is All Recycling “Good for the Environment”?
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Is All Recycling “Good for the Environment”?

By Gabriela Wheeler - Apr 04, 2022

In Japan, recycling is an amateur sport, or, at the very least, a national pastime. People spend lots of time preparing and sorting the trash into either burnable or recyclable, but the sorting does not stop there. There are several categories of waste material – around 10 in Minato-ku, one of the wards or municipalities in Tokyo – and each has to be handled differently.

How do people keep track of the way to recycle their trash? The process of disposing of your garbage can be so complicated, that each municipality has to publish a guide which provides excruciatingly detailed information on what, where, when and how to recycle each disposable item you can think of. The Minato-ku guide, for example, is 32 pages long. One cannot help but wonder how many hours are spent reading the guide, and how many trees have gone into the production of those handy and colorful pamphlets distributed among the 125 million inhabitants. One would also hope that most of the paper comes from recycled pulp.

Each recyclable item has to undergo a specific process before it can be thrown out, which is generally completed by members of the household, but sometimes also performed by a janitor or doorman of an apartment or office building. Thus, getting the trash out the door requires an enormous amount of labor.

“It does take quite a reasonable amount of time and effort for residents to sort their recyclable waste,” noted Ross Laratta, a professor of political science and social policy at the International College of Liberal Arts in Japan, as cited in an Earth Island Institute article.

For example, PET bottles have to be rinsed, and the plastic top and label removed, then placed in a specific bag or crate marked for plastic recycling. Some marketing and advertising companies, which are always creative and able to take advantage of opportunities to sell new products, have come up with the idea of selling beverages in bottles without a label. For example, you can shop for Coca-Cola on Amazon Japan, and order bottles with or without a label, the latter option being cheaper and saving you the trouble of having to remove the label for recycling.

Aside from the PET bottles, other recyclable food containers have to be rinsed carefully before depositing them into the recycling bin or bag. Milk cartons also have to be rinsed and cut open into a specific shape, then tied up with string to form a neat pile. This raises the question of how much water is getting wasted to rinse these recyclables. Isn’t water also a precious resource? The website explains that rinsing out the polypropylene tub of a yogurt requires about 350 milliliters of water if you use it sparingly. Multiply this by the millions of plastic tubs and containers recycled every year, and it adds up to an enormous amount of water wasted this way.

Environmentalists claim that recycling actually saves water. “This is because the extraction of virgin raw materials and manufacturing them into single use packaging uses quite a bit of water,” Pablo Paster notes in an article published by Treehugger. Paster quotes James Norman, a life-cycle analysis expert and the director of research at Planet Metrics, who notes that a small mason jar weighing 185 grams requires about 1.5 liters of water to be manufactured from virgin materials, and a 200 gram “tin” can require 9.2 (steel) or 13.7 liters (aluminum) of water.

There is no doubt that all of these recycling efforts contribute to reducing waste, while the collection of millions of tons of valuable materials that can be reused helps preserve precious resources and protect the environment, thus meeting the well-known principles of the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Japan is incredibly successful at recycling and reusing materials. According to the Earth Island Institute, in 2018 Japan recycled an impressive 84% of the plastic collected. In comparison, the United States recycled about 9 percent. What cannot be recycled, gets burnt and Japan has developed highly sophisticated and clean methods to dispose of combustible waste for power generation and other applications.

The original drive behind the critical and complex methods of garbage disposal in Japan really stems from the fact that the country’s territory is relatively small and most of it is covered in mountains. The usable areas are therefore limited and invaluable, and they cannot be wasted (no pun intended) on landfills. That is why recycling is not just another chore, it’s a way of life.

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2 replies on “Is All Recycling “Good for the Environment”?”

Re: “It does take quite a reasonable amount of time and effort for residents to sort their recyclable waste,” noted Ross Laratta, a professor of political science and social policy at the International College of Liberal Arts in Japan, as cited in an Earth Island Institute article.”

Not to second-guess the good professor, but it’s likely that residents of Japan, and certainly those who have lived in other countries with more relaxed standards, would consider the amount of time and effort to sort their recyclable waste to be quite UNreasonable, given all the hoops they have to go through.

This is an excellent and very enlightening article, beautifully written – kudos to the editor – about the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in something most Americans give comparatively little thought to. It reminded me of something I learned many years ago, while serving in the USAF at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. Enlisted men had occasional duty “riding shotgun” on garbage trucks as the Korean nationals picked up garbage on the base. When I inquired about what they charged for the task, I was told that Korea paid the US government, since American “garbage” was a rich source of recyclable items. (Consider that for a moment!) It became immediately clear to me that South Korea was going to become an industrial powerhouse. In retrospect, that seems quite the understatement.

Thanks for a truly out-of-the-box and off-the-beaten-path article. I’ll never again dread wheeling the recycling barrel to the curb!

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