Inside one of Asia’s most successful zero-waste communities

Plastic Atlas

Residents of Kamikatsu, a small town in Japan, readily sort out their refuse in a long-term recycle, reuse, and reduce community programme that has seen the municipality achieve an 80 per cent recycling rate. Can this success be replicated in other parts of Asia?

Japan's Kamikatsu waste collection centre

The town of Kamikatsu on Shikoku Island, Japan, is home to about 1,500 people in some 800 households that are scattered over the forested mountains along the Katsura River. Despite its small size, the town is widely regarded as the gold standard for a “zero waste” community, as over 80 percent of its waste is recycled rather than ending up in landfills or incinerators. The national rate in Japan is about 20 percent.

As early as the 1990s,  Kamikatsu residents began segregating their waste into different categories, including glass bottles, aluminium cans, and steel cans, among others, for recycling and open incineration. However, when the local government installed two small incinerators to handle the waste, the burners ended up releasing harmful substances into the air and risked damaging the environment.

Given the high cost of sending waste to other municipalities, the small town pledged in 2003 to reduce its waste instead, becoming Japan’s first town to commit to achieving zero waste  – a goal that seeks to prevent, reduce, reuse, and recycle waste, as well as adhere to sustainable manufacturing processes.

Currently, residents line up at the town’s waste collection centre to segregate their household waste into a total of 45 categories, with the help of full-time staff at the centre.

Two years after the pledge was first made, the Kamikatsu-based NGO, Zero Waste Academy, was established to further promote the concept.

Recycling, reuse, reduce

Akira Sakano, now a board member for Zero Waste Japan, headed the Kamikatsu NGO for nearly five years.

“When I first visited Kamikatsu, what surprised me was how the community implemented the zero-waste practice,” she said. “It’s difficult work that is often only possible with a strong leader. But whomever I met in the town had a strong sense of mission about the project themselves.”

At the time, there were 34 categories for segregating waste, but since 2016, this has grown to 45. The town has also developed and distributed its own guidebook to inform local people and overseas visitors alike on how to separate their waste. Residents have to wash non-organic waste before bringing it to the collection centre, while the municipal government subsidises the purchase of electric composters and compost bins to handle organic waste.

In 2007, a kuru-kuru (circular) shop opened for local residents to bring reusable but unwanted items for others to take home free of charge. In 2016, about 15 tons of items were brought in. Up to 90 percent annually are reused. A Kamikatsu “remake” craft centre also upcycles fabrics from collected waste into clothes.

To encourage the community to reduce single-use containers, free reusable tableware is available for events. In 2019, the Academy said nearly 8,000 pieces of such crockery and other items  were lent for social events – had prevented numerous containers from going to incinerators.

It is not only residents who have adopted a zero waste lifestyle. In 2020, the Academy launched the Zero Waste Accreditation System to minimise waste generation by certifying shops that make efforts to reduce waste and promote the programme. Currently, there are 10 accredited food and beverage stores, including three outside Kamikatsu.

Zero waste is an attitude

Linda Ding, who works at a zero-waste café in Kamikatsu and is the co-founder of the iNow programme that assists non-locals experience the town’s unique lifestyle, said zero waste is more than just the 3Rs – recycling, reuse and reduce.  “Zero waste is about refusing – refusing the things you don’t need. This way, you won’t create waste. Everything in the world is a material, which can be reused and made into something else. To nature, nothing is waste. The modern idea is that a material can go into the garbage and it disappears forever. But that is not how reality works.”

The iNow programme is Ding’s brainchild with the café’s owner, Terumi Azuma. “Zero waste is not just about eliminating waste,” Azuma said. “But about looking for a balance between time, energy, money, and waste. We want everyone to learn the quantity of materials they need every day, to let go of consumption anxiety and instead only buy what they need.”

Can the approach be replicated elsewhere?

Sakano said Kamikatsu’s approach unfortunately cannot be directly replicated in most other communities, especially cities and highly urbanised locations. “Kamikatsu is a small mountainous area with a limited and aged population, so the system could be [custom-]designed for the residents there. But if we had to expand the concept of zero waste to the whole country, we would need to create models specific to different areas and cultures. To push municipalities to go for zero waste, the first step is to improve collaboration between them. The second step is to manage waste in a proper way.”

Although Japan has a comprehensive waste collection system, over 65 percent of  collected end-of-life plastics still go into incinerators that offer heat recovery for thermal recycling. Critics, including Japan’s State Minister for the Environment, Minoru Kiuchi, said burning rubbish is only contributing to global warming. His suggestion, which Sakano seconded, is to stop building new incinerators in the country.  

Zero waste policies elsewhere in Asia

In other parts of Asia, alternatives to Kamikatsu’s community effort have been employed to adopt a zero waste lifestyle.

Alaminos, a city in the Philippines, became the first in the country to pass a zero waste ordinance in 2010. The ordinance banned incineration and required people to segregate waste at source, with residents receiving a warning if their waste was not separated. Since then, the city has seen a reduction in volume of overall waste. It has also been reported that plastic waste has been reused by being turned into pavers to enhance city centre pavements.

In addition, the city of Malabon has mandated waste segregation at source in 2019, and implemented this initiative by house-to-house education that has led to a 90 percent segregation rate today.

In contrast to the largely elderly population of Kamikatsu, booming Penang in Malaysia has achieved the highest recycling rate in the country, at 43 percent, through school endeavours in and outside the classroom. For example, following a 2017 policy requiring residents to segregate their rubbish at source, a Green School Award has motivated teachers and students to work closely with NGOs to ensure recycling and composting on campus.

In the Vietnamese city of Phu Yen, NGOs have taken a more prominent role in pushing a zero-waste lifestyle than the local government. Local alliances are working with the local authorities and businesses, including restaurants, hotels, and tourism sites, to amass related data and make actionable suggestions, with an aim to reduce 25 percent of local waste. The three-year pilot project is due to be completed at the end of 2021.

As such, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a successful zero waste policy. However, the diverse ways being employed show that such a system is highly possible if cities and countries are willing to be creative, and to recognise the change needed in consumption and production thinking and patterns to eliminate waste at source.

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