It was not that long ago that life in Kamikatsu revolved around the state of the rice crop and the number of tourists arriving to soak in the restorative waters of the local hot spring. Now the town, in the densely wooded mountains of Shikoku island in south-west Japan, has a new obsession: rubbish.
Since 2003, Kamikatsu's 2,000 residents have been part of a so-far unheralded ecological experiment that, if successful, could force rubbish collectors across the country to look for new jobs.
Urban Japanese householders, who baulk at having to divide rubbish into flammable and inflammable items, bottles and cans, should spare a thought for their counterparts in Kamikatsu. Here, household waste must be separated into no fewer than 34 categories before being taken to a recycling centre where volunteers administer firm, but polite, reprimands to anyone who forgets to remove the lid from a plastic bottle or to rinse out an empty beer can.
At stake is Kamikatsu's quest to end its dependence on incineration and landfill by 2020 and claim the title of Japan's first zero-waste community.
An hour's drive from the nearest city and about 600 kilometres from Tokyo, the town was forced to change the way it managed its waste in 2000, when strict new regulations on dioxin emissions forced Kamikatsu to shut down its two incinerators.
"We were no longer able to burn our rubbish, so we thought the best policy was not to produce any in the first place," said Sonoe Fujii of the town's Zero Waste Academy, a non-profit organisation that oversees the scheme.
Despite initial opposition, the zero-waste declaration, passed by the village assembly in 2003, has spawned an unlikely army of eco-warriors.
When Kikue Nii is not tending her impressive allotment or catching fish from the river at the bottom of her garden, she is up to her elbows in garbage.
"At first it was very hard work," said the 65-year-old woman, as she emptied another bowl of vegetable peelings into the electric garbage-disposal unit next to her back door. In the corner of her garden, more kitchen waste sat in a conventional composter, waiting to help nurture a new supply of tomatoes and spring onions.
"I was working when the scheme started and found myself spending my lunch break dealing with our rubbish," she said. "It took ages to sort everything into different types. But it comes naturally now."
However, she draws the line at her husband's empty beer cans: "They are his responsibility," she said.
That Nii and her neighbours struggled in the early days of the zero-waste campaign is understandable, given the daunting, myriad rules.
Glass bottles must be relieved of their caps and sorted by colour. Plastic bottles for soy sauce and cooking oil must be kept separate from PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) bottles that once contained mineral water and green tea.
All bottles, cans and even plastic food wrappers must be washed thoroughly; newspapers and magazines have to be piled into neat bundles tied with a twine made from recycled milk cartons.
Any waste that is not composted is taken to the zero-waste centre. Early one recent morning, a trickle of cars turned into a deluge as residents arrived at the centre to drop off their rubbish on the way to work. The site can accommodate a dizzying array of items — from bottles, cans and newspapers to crockery, batteries, nappies, cigarette lighters, ballpoint pens and an improbably large number of broken mirrors.
Anything in good enough condition to be reused ends up at the Kuru Kuru recycling store, where residents may drop off or take home whatever they like, free of charge. [Since the shop opened two years ago, town residents have offloaded 1.7 tons of unwanted items, mainly clothes and ornaments, and taken home 1.2 tons.]
All but a few categories of rubbish are recycled. Wooden chopsticks are pulped and made into paper, and cooking oil reappears in fertiliser. But for other items, such as shoes, futons and carpets, the only option remains incineration. Glass and ceramics and light bulbs are buried in landfills, while batteries have to be shipped hundreds of kilometres to a recycling plant on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The cost of disposing of items that can’t be recycled has dropped. In 2004, the town spent almost 40 million yen (US$370,000) on waste disposal and recycling; this had fallen to just under 18 million yen (US$166,000) two years later.
Critics point out that some of the composters use electricity and that most residents of Kamikatsu, which is spread out over an area that ranges from 100 metres to 800 metres above sea level, have no choice but to take their rubbish to the zero-waste centre by car.
"We're still some way from reaching our zero-waste goal, but the difference is amazing compared with a few years ago," said Yasuo Goto, a 75-year-old retired farmer who works part-time as a caretaker at the centre.
His optimism is supported by data showing that Kamikatsu's recycling rate has soared from 55% a decade ago to around 80% today. Five years after the scheme's inception, 98% of the population uses home composters, which, with government subsidies, cost a modest 3,000 yen (US$28) each.
"I can't say with absolute confidence that we will reach the target, but we're doing our best to make it happen," said Fujii.
To stand any chance of reaching its 2020 goal, the greenest citizens still have a public relations battle to win. Local reaction was mixed when the town first mooted the idea of spearheading Japan's zero-waste movement. There were complaints that the regular cycle of sorting, washing and disposing of rubbish would prove too much for the elderly population.
A recent poll showed that 40% of residents were still unhappy about at least one aspect of the zero-waste policy. "We still have opponents, particularly because almost everything has to be washed," Fujii said. "All we can do is talk to the doubters and explain why what we're doing is so important. I think consciousness is growing that this is a good thing; that it's not just the right thing to do, but the only thing to do."
Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2008
Homepage photo by Timothy