Tokyo is an extraordinarily clean city, a fact that is all the more striking once you realize that there are no public trash cans anywhere. In Manhattan, there is a trash can on nearly every corner, but it is evident from the waste littering the streets of Midtown that the half-block of traveling required to reach a waste container is still not sufficiently convenient for many New Yorkers. In Tokyo, I often found myself carrying an empty cup or candy wrapper around for hours without finding a place to toss it out. I usually ended up bringing my trash home with me; I suppose that’s what everyone else was doing as well, since I certainly didn’t see any garbage on the sidewalks.
In Japan, all trash must be sorted into combustible and noncombustible waste, so my Tokyo apartment had three wastebaskets: one for recyclables and two for garbage. At times I was confused as to whether a particular article of trash could be burned or not; when in doubt I tended towards classifying garbage as noncombustible, since it was my understanding that combustible waste taking up space in a landfill was a less severe problem than the fumes that could be created when non-combustible garbage was sent to the incinerator.
I developed the habit of sorting my garbage fairly quickly, but I still ran into confusing situations on occasion. When I went to dispose of my empty cup at the Starbucks in Ikebukuro, I was confronted with a somewhat bewildering array of compartments and receptacles: separate openings were designated for liquids, paper cups, plastic cups, leftover ice, lids, trays, and dishes, as well as burnable and non-burnable garbage.
Now where does my cup go?
The waste stations at the World Expo in Nagoya were even more exhaustive, with separate bins for newspapers, paper cups, burnable waste and unburnable waste, plastic, compost, PET bottles, chopsticks, and leftover drinks. While I imagine that this situation was taken in stride by the Japanese Expo attendees, I found it a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the Expo organizers had anticipated the confusion of foreign visitors, so each waste station was actively staffed by a uniformed attendant who would examine your garbage and assist you into classifying it into the appropriate bin.
At least the labels are in multiple languages…
On the 50th floor of Mori Tower in Roppongi, you will find an urban planning museum called the Mori Urban Institute for the Future. On display there are exquisitely detailed 1/1000 scale models of three of the world’s great cities: Tokyo, New York, and Shanghai. Each tiny building replica is individually hand-sculpted from foam, its surface covered with composite on-location photographs of the actual building. Above these amazing models, which occupy a room the size of several tennis courts, is a screen displaying statistics comparing the three cities. I found the format in which the statistics were presented to be rather entertaining: first, a heading was shown, such as “average cost of a hotel room,” or “ambient carbon monoxide concentration,” and time was allowed for the viewer to speculate as to which of the three cities came out ahead. The numbers were then displayed, accompanied by graphs, against which you could check your guesswork.
Some of the statistics were fairly easy to predict; for example, Japan is the most expensive city to buy a meal, followed by New York and then Shanghai. New York has the highest incidence of violent crime, and Tokyo has the lowest. Other facts were less obvious; for example, New York has far more space devoted to public parks than the other two cities. And some information took me completely by surprise: while Tokyo’s average energy consumption per capita is less than half of New York’s, its municipal waste output per capita is slightly higher.
At Tokyu Hands, even trash cans can be cute.
Perhaps this should not have surprised me given the Japanese obsession with beautifully wrapped products. Consider the lemon tart that I bought from the French bakery in the basement of Tobu. The tart was set on a small cardboard tray, and this tray was placed inside of a box with a cardboard insert to prevent it from sliding around, accompanied by an individually wrapped plastic spoon, a napkin, and a bag of desiccant. After the box was closed and sealed with an elegant gold sticker, an additional label was affixed on the lid which was stamped with the date. The box was then placed in a glossy bag with a fabric handles and the bag was taped shut with an adhesive ribbon bearing the name of the bakery. Finally, since it was a rainy day, this paper bag was in turn draped with a fitted plastic covering and taped shut.
While I couldn’t help but marvel at the attention to detail and the dedicated service accompanying my 320-Yen piece of cake, a part of me protested the extravagant use of packaging materials. The elegant wrapping might make sense if the cake were a gift, but what if, minutes after leaving the store, I planned to sit on a bench outside the subway station and eat the cake right there?
If you plan to spend any amount of time in Japan, a useful Japanese phrase to learn is “fukuro iranai” — “I don’t need a bag.” When I first asked my friend Makoto how to politely refuse a bag, he looked puzzled, perhaps because he was trying to think of a phrase that I wouldn’t be able to butcher too badly. Finally he suggested that I simply bring my own bag, hold it up, and proudly proclaim, “My Bag Campaign!” In English!
“Campaign” is one of those English words that has crept into common Japanese usage, but acquired a distinctively Japanese meaning, similar to “saabisu” (something free that is included with a purchase), “manikyua” (nail polish), “mentaritii” (intelligence), and “manshion” (a luxury apartment, giving rise to the somewhat confusing phrase “one room mansion”). I’ve seen the word “campaign” on various signs in the subway describing advertising promotions, so I assume that there must be a conservationist effort called the “My Bag Campaign” that advocates bringing your own bags to the store.
Oddly enough, this was printed on a plastic bag I received at a convenience store.
It’s a timely crusade to mount in Tokyo, where any purchase you make, no matter how small, will be carefully packaged. You can run into the 7-11 to buy one package of chewing gum or a single can of beer, and unless you request otherwise, the typical checker’s devotion to customer service will ensure that it is placed in a plastic bag, the handles carefully rolled together and the top taped shut for your convenience.
So let’s hope that the “My Bag Campaign” takes off. In the United States, where we have cheap acreage to spare, we can simply hide away our trash in vast rural dumps. But in a country no larger than the state of California, waste disposal must be handled with the systematic precision that is so typically Japanese.