Wednesday, August 29, 2007

100 Yen a Bag

This evening one of my students told me about some policies in the handling of trash in her neighborhood which do not bode well for the future of trash collection if such notions infect other local cities. My student lives in a seaside area a little less than two hours by train from central Tokyo and she said her area was having issues with inappropriate trash disposal such as people putting out too many shopping-bag-size bags which take too long to collect and possibly issues with illegal dumping though she wasn't clear on this point.

The city government decided that they would try to deal with the problems they've been having by requiring two things and encouraging a third. The first thing is that people will have to buy a sticker for 100 yen to put on each and every bag of trash they put out for collection. The second is that they will have to put their trash in individual spots rather than in a centralized location so that each person's responsibility for their trash is clearer. In her case, she has to leave her trash in her parking space to make it clear that it is hers.

If you think these moves have anything to do with global warming and decreasing the amount of waste so that less trash is incinerated, think again. The reason for these changes in policy are completely financial. The local government is too poor to continue trash collection service so they want to lower the volume they have to handle and increase their revenue. To this end, they are encouraging people in the city to buy personal incinerators and to burn the trash themselves. My student told me the devices they are recommending cost 50,000 yen ($435) each and are about the size of a washing machine.

Given the small size of Japanese homes (both apartments and houses), you might guess that people are not keen on this option. My student said that she is also worried about any burning trash odor that the device may emit within her apartment and I'm sure this is a concern others have as well. The solution that she and her neighbors are considering is a truly scary one. One of her neighbors works in construction and they routinely burn trash on the work site in a big metal drum. He's volunteered to transport the drum to the neighborhood every Sunday to allow everyone to burn their trash in it so they don't have to buy incinerators and so they don't have to pay as much for bags of garbage to be removed.

This solution may save the residents money but it's bad in several ways. First of all, the risk of a fire from burning trash is not a small one when you get a bunch of regular folks tossing crap into a big drum, particularly one that is smoking and stinking for a long period of time which no one is going to want to stand around and watch. The other problem is that the fumes coming from such a thing are likely to be somewhat toxic and will definitely be worse than controlled emissions from a government-ran incinerator which is obliged to adhere to guidelines to which residents will not be subject. Finally, given the very high cost of tossing out each bag of trash, people will be inclined to burn anything and everything possible and may be attempting to burn things which really ought not be burned because of their toxicity.

This sort of situation is so incredibly Japanese in the way it has unfolded. It's the sort of thing I was exposed to time and again at my former job. Short-sighted decisions are made for very small, concrete benefits and likely but hypothetical long-term problems are dismissed, left un-discussed, or ignored. The general way of handling any problem is to propose a solution to the immediate problem and then to cross the other bridges when they collapse under the ill-advised weight of the short-term solution. It's a classic result of holding meetings in which dissent is discouraged and consensus is valued over the broadest possible long-term solution to the problem.

There have been many times when I have been the happy beneficiary of the way in which Japanese people think about the harmony of the group and times when I think it's the ultimate exercise in consideration and sublimating one's wishes and opinions in order to accommodate what is best for everyone but this sort of situation which solves one problem and very likely will create many more (potentially worse ones) is the negative flip-side of that sort of thinking.


Miko said...

You wrote: "Short-sighted decisions are made for very small, concrete benefits and likely but hypothetical long-term problems are dismissed, left un-discussed, or ignored. The general way of handling any problem is to propose a solution to the immediate problem and then to cross the other bridges when they collapse under the ill-advised weight of the short-term solution."

Now *that* is an eerily accurate description of my mother's way of dealing with problems, even very serious and pressing ones! Which caused me no end of pain when I was growing up. Excellent insight Shari, if not a very comfortable one.

I think the 100-yen-per-bag is a good idea, though. I wish they would introduce it in Kobe. You would be shocked at the sheer wastefulness of the people here. Even people from neighbouring cities are.

Kanagawa G said...

I live in Kanagawa, just over the border from Tokyo. My town started requiring us to buy "approved" bags for our burnable garbage, and no garbage will be collected unless it is in the designated yellow bag. One 20 litre bag runs for abut 40 yen with smaller bags priced accordingly.
For larger garbage (sodai gomi) we need to tie several bags around the item to equal a value that was specified by the town according to some strange hard-to read chart that is probably based on the terminal velocity of a banana.
There was an uproar among those who have children and those who are caring for the elderly because diapers need to be disposed of in these special bags. People felt that they were being unfairly treated, especially young families just starting out (the Japanese gov't wants to support young families to raise the population, right?). The town, in all of their wisdom, has decided to allow collection of diapers in non-specified bags,'s the kicker...we have to clean them out before they can be collected! Just how are we supposed to clean out a super-absorbant diaper?

Also, illegal dumping has risen drammatically because those who did so before are now even more inclined to do so as they don't want to pay for a designated garbage bag.

This is yet another case of a bad plan poorly executed.

Shari said...

Miko: I must say that, while it was irritating to deal with this in my former office, I think it'd be really devastating (at least at times) to have to put up with this from a parent! Good heavens, I bet you have stories to tell which we'd all cringe at! Thanks very much for your kind words and taking the time to comment.

Kanagawa G: Like Miko, I also don't have a big problem with making the bags more expensive (though I think 100 yen a bag is a bit excessive) if the goal is to get people to reduce waste. However, I think people with children younger than 2 or with elderly parents who need adult diapers should be able to use special diaper disposal bags (which should be included in bags of diapers when purchased) if they want to encourage women to continue to have children and not discriminate.

I think the "cleaning out the diapers" thing is a bit absurd though. That'd sure make me think twice about a baby if I were inclined to have one.

I can't wait to see what our ward comes up with in regards to trash collection as I'm sure we'll eventually be asked to do something more expensive than we do now (which is use special bags but not ones that cost as much as yours). :-p

Thanks very much for your comment, too!