Week 7 Prompt: Trash
TRASH — Data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development highlight startling facts about trash. On average, the United States is responsible for producing 760 kilograms per capita (about 1,675 pounds) of municipal waste. This situates our nation as the fourth largest producer of trash in the world, trailing only Ireland (780 kg/person), Denmark (800 kg/person) and Norway (830 kg/person). On the other end of the scale, the three lowest producers are China (115 kg/person), the Czech Republic (290 kg/person), and Poland (320 kg/person). While these numbers perhaps reflect varying levels of economic development, they might also serve as pointed commentary on our ostensibly failed efforts to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Think about trash this week. How much trash do you produce each week? What happens to it? Is it taken to a landfill? Is it burned? Is single-stream recycling available in your area? Is trash picked up once a week from the street curb, is it collected each day, or is there a central collection point somewhere in your city? Consider these questions, then take a picture of trash as it is commonly encountered in your community: in a dumpster, in a gutter, left to decay in a parking lot, etc.
Trash in Japan, or at least the disposal of it, is a cultural institution. It is easily the most recycling-focused place to which I have ever been. Not only is trash separated into recyclables, compostables, and other, recyclables are separated by type (PET bottles, other plastic, glass, cans, clean paper, other paper and cardboard), and household trash is separated into burnable, non-burnable, and other. These categories are picked up separately a few times per week (by a truck that plays a pleasant jingle as it travels down the road). Large items that don’t fit into one of these categories, such as suitcases, have to be picked up separately for a fee. One of the students on my study group broke a suitcase and had to pay around $10 for it to be taken away. In addition, public trash cans are notoriously difficult to find. They are present in some parks, and outside convenience stores, but that’s about it. Japanese people tend to keep their trash with them when they’re out and about and dispose of it when they return home. As a result, the streets are extremely clean. For this reason, I was unable to find a picture of trash to include with this blog post, because I simply didn’t see any.
This level of diligence in recycling isn’t just wishful thinking, either. Japanese people seem very committed to making sure they dispose of waste properly. Children learn from their parents, and thus the knowledge is passed from generation to generation. As an example, I seem to remember hearing that over 90% of plastic bottles are recycled, and if you’ve ever seen the ubiquity of beverage vending machines in Japan, you’ll know that that’s a whole lot of bottles. There really does seem to be a sense that recycling and reducing waste is the right thing to do, and pretty much everyone is in on it.
Having said that, Japan is certainly not blameless in its production of waste. While it may recycle at high rates, its tendency to use a lot of packaging means that it produces a lot of paper, cardboard, and plastic waste. To illustrate, bags of snack items (such as mini KitKats) usually have each one individually wrapped in plastic, which is very convenient, but seems unnecessary. This pattern continues beyond dessert products and into the famous bento lunch boxes, which often include the plastic box and top, as well as disposable chopsticks in a paper or plastic wrapping, a moist towelette wrapped in plastic, possibly a pack of sauce, and a paper or plastic bag to carry it in. That’s a lot of extra waste. As I say, Japan is famous for its excellent packaging, and it really is both convenient and beautiful, but there are definite downsides to it. I myself, being a foreign student who has to find his own lunch, am guilty of producing a fair amount of trash on days when I don’t eat at a restaurant. I assure you, however, that I always recycle.
On my study group, we lived in the relative isolation of different South African National Parks (SAN Parks) and nature reserves. Because of this isolation, we were not able to buy much in our day to day. The large majority of the trash produced by the people in my study group came from food products. Week to week, the students on my group are catered food for every meal by the Aggy Shadow Catering Company. Behind the scenes, our catering company likely produced trash from the packing of food items they purchased. However, once we were served we had no plastic waste and hardly any food leftover. The majority of my personal waste came from buying sweets like candy bars and other junk food at the local gas stations during our days off or travel days. The question of what happened to the trash at each different location varied. In Skukuza, a camp in Kruger National Park where we spent a month of our time, they had just begun a waste separation and recycling system in 2014. The contrast of traveling within the pristine Kruger Park to then driving outside of it where the side of the roads and fields were littered with trash was astounding. The infrastructures in the tourist-centric and tourist-funded SAN Parks were drastically better than the areas surrounding it. While we had running water and toilets in Kruger, we had outhouses with holding tanks in the Hamakuya chieftaincy 6 hours of driving away.