Tucked almost imperceptibly into cedar-blanketed mountains an hour’s winding drive from the
nearest metropolis, Kamikatsu, Japan seems an unlikely spot for a revolution. But try to throw even a candy wrapper away here, and it’s quickly apparent that residents are radically reshaping their relationship to the environment.
This is a town singularly focused on banishing waste – all waste – by 2020. The 2,000 people of Kamikatsu have dispensed with public trash bins. They set up a Zero Waste Academy to act as a monitor. The town dump has become a sort of outdoor filing cabinet, embracing 34 categories of trash – from batteries to fluorescent lights to bottle caps. On a hill overlooking Kamikatsu are 15 windmills, just completed, that it will maintain in cooperation with two neighboring towns.
The drive has brought a new sense of purpose to the tiny enclave, which has lost two-thirds of its population in recent decades and seen its rice paddies and lumber industry fade away as sources of income. To be sure, Kamikatsu goes dark at night, with not even a convenience store open. But that, some argue, is a potential asset.
“Kamikatsu is a very attractive place because so many progressive things are going on,” says Mitsutoshi Imade, who runs the local inn. The nearest cinema is an hour away, and shopping is not convenient, he acknowledges. But, he says, “I like the country life. It’s a good place to raise children.”
Kamikatsu has probably pushed the recycling ethic as far as any community in the world. But it’s just one small indicator of a national drive by Japan to position itself as a leader in the world’s urgent quest to live greener. Its strength in efficient manufacturing and technological refinement has helped lay the foundation for a more energy efficient and less polluting society.
“Japan has generally been better than [the US] internationally on a number of issues, including reducing electronic waste, recycling and energy-efficiency,” says Daniel Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy in New Haven, Connecticut. “The region sees Japan as a technological leader, and as we move more toward understanding the technological role in making environmental progress, there’s a sense that Japan has a lot to share.”
At Toyota’s Tsutsumi assembly plant in Nagoya, Japan’s answer to Detroit, evidence of a more environmentally sensitive car industry is on display before you even walk through the door. What was once a vast, gray expanse of industrial might has come to life – literally.
Large trees (50,000 were planted in May) dot the visitor parking lot to offer a soothing greeting, says the plant’s “sustainable initiative” manager. Insulating vines wend their way up one building. Some 22,000 square meters of exterior walls are coated with photocatalytic paint that, Toyota says, mirrors the ability of 2,000 poplars to absorb nitrous oxide and process oxygen.
The roof of the visitor center is a mat of grass, designed to reduce waves of heat by 3 degrees Celsius. Solar lights dot the streets and 800-kilowatt solar panels blanket the buildings. Even the red roadside flowers were genetically engineered to absorb noxious emissions and help evaporate water.
Behind Tsutsumi’s face-lift lies one of the globe’s most visible bids to lighten the automobile’s carbon footprint: the Prius. “Cars are a burden to the environment, but the hybrid helps,” says Osamu Terada, leader of the sustainable plant initiative. “The plant is also important – we don’t want manufacturing to cause a further burden.”
Like the Prius, the Tsutsumi factory now relies on hybrid power, drawing 50 percent of its electricity from solar panels and 50 percent from capturing waste heat generated within the plant. The facility has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions to half of what they were in 1990, despite an increase in production. It eliminated production of landfill waste in 1999 and dispensed with incinerated waste in March.
“Toyota is certainly a visible leader in this regard,” says Mr. Esty. “And other auto companies [such as Honda and BMW] are starting to pay attention to environmental concerns in both the cars they produce and their manufacturing process and supply chain as well. Even some American car companies are starting to wake up on these issues.”
At Dowa Eco-System Recycling Co., in Honjo, Japan, Yoshihiko Maeda thrusts his hand into an enormous, waist-high plastic bag and rifles through hundreds of used cell phones. To him, it’s opportunity time.
Usually one phone, which weighs 100-130 grams (0.22 to 0.3 lbs), gives .04 grams of gold, according to Dowa officials. That’s valuable to manufacturers in growing competition for resources and to recyclers, who can extract and refine it to the same purity as mined gold. But much manufacturing has moved from developed to developing countries, which often lack proper recycling facilities. Because it is often hard to automate, unsafe practices can expose workers – including children in some parts of the world – to dangerous materials.
After 2005, says Yasuhiko Hotta, a waste management expert at the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Kanagawa, Japan, the government shifted its focus to international efforts – including, for example, Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia. It’s taking steps to prevent illegal trade in recyclables, including e-waste, and to develop the capacity for proper treatment of recyclables and waste in developing countries.
Dowa, which recaptures about 440 lbs (200 kilograms) of gold each month, can extract 18 metals from the 800 varieties of daily detritus – including cell phones, watches, circuit boards, even pens – that come into the plant each month.
As he watches a worker take molten recovered gold and press it into a brick worth some 7 million yen, or about $72,000, Mr. Maeda says that the amount of gold and silver he sees has skyrocketed. And that’s a good thing.
“Mines dig deep holes, and that produces waste,” he says. A ton of earth, for example, typically yields five grams of gold. A ton of cell phones, meanwhile, contains 400 grams of gold, along with 500 grams of silver and 4 grams of palladium, according to Dowa.
Still, many of the efforts to go green in Japan are more the work of individuals. Consider the mayor of Kamikatsu.
Kazuichi Kasamatsu grew up in the small town, watching its population drop by two-thirds and its economic prospects dwindle. Rice paddies were replaced with cedar farms – only to have the lumber business leave in search of cheaper labor. “There was always a sense that we might not make it,” he says. “We struggled to figure out our future.”
Passage of a waste-management law in 1997 forced the shutdown of the town’s incinerator – and gave rise to a new sense of direction that drew inspiration from near (other rural areas in Japan) and far (the rapidly growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China).
“Towns everywhere are dealing with the same issue – how to be sustainable,” he comments. The Internet has boosted his fellow citizens’ sense of themselves as international players who should observe and be observed, exchanging tips with counterparts around the world. He also says it was time to go against the tide of gauging wealth by the accumulation of more stuff. “We want to produce things that take into account what happens after it’s used. If it can’t be recycled in any way, then you can’t produce it.” The town now has an 80 percent recycling rate, up from 55 percent 10 years ago. The local hotel – where tourists arrive by the busload to dip into baths fed by mountain hot springs – is heated with biomass burners, saving 7 million yen annually (about $72,000) and reducing its CO2 emissions.
The change has spread to the minutia of life. Local merchants offer raffle tickets for empty cans and hold drawings for small prizes. People volunteer to pick up illegally dumped materials and snatch up everything that passersby toss on the road.
Sonoe Fujii, who runs Zero Waste Academy, says she sees more people eating with reusable chopsticks and carrying ecobags, including some made by local women from waste materials. As the town prepares to host a conference of “the most beautiful villages in Japan,” clusters of retirees gather on the roadside to put in plants and do some weeding. They wave to visitors they’ve met only the day before as if they are old friends.
Perceptions are changing too. “Garbage has a negative connotation,” Ms. Fujii notes. “But when garbage is brought to the town dump and can be recycled, it can have a new life. People smile and chat about the garbage. They have made a strong contribution.”
She tells people that while the policy benefits the environment, it also saves them money – allowing for greater town investment in education, among other things. The flow of observers coming to check out the garbage initiative, she adds, bodes well for the future. And as a young person, she’s glad to see at least a few people like her heading back to the countryside, attracted by the prospect of a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.
Hitomi Azuma, who works in the mayor’s office, says that when young people who have grown up in the town move to the city to live or to study, they realize that Kamikatsu is still unusual in its soup-to-nuts recycling efforts. She says that may spur them to take action in their new homes and that it also inspires pride in their hometown.
“It used to be that Kamikatsu was unknown, so kids would say they were from the nearest city,” Azuma says. “Now they say they’re from Kamikatsu, and people know it.”
Fujii hopes that recycling won’t be so onerous in the future as manufacturers figure out how to reduce waste and reuse more materials. The next move has to come from business, she asserts. For now Kamikatsu is aiming to meet its 2020 goal, and the prospect is energizing townspeople of all ages.
That is evident from Kikue Nii’s back patio. A carefully attended array of potted plants shares floor space with washed plastic bags that float like wind chimes from a sock hanger. A row of plastic recycling bins lies just next to a tank of freshwater crabs Mrs. Nii draws from the local river, which runs just behind her home.
Nii prides herself on keeping up with the times. While her modest home may evoke a bygone era with its weathered wooden exterior and low ceilings, the table in the tatami-matted room off the kitchen sports a late-model computer that delivered a new emailed picture of her three grandchildren just that morning.
But her recycling practices, which she divides with her husband, are not only impelled by the new environmental push. Her generation often invokes a longstanding Japanese ethic that has informed samurai and artisans alike: mottainai, or waste not.
“When my grandchildren come, I let them wash the bottles and bags, and I tell them how important it is, so when they go home they follow suit,” she says, noting with a smile that her grandson wrote a story for school about Kamikatsu’s efforts.
“Each person has to do something,” Nii says, “so their children and grandchildren can have a more peaceful life.”
Amelia Newcomb is the Deputy International Editor at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, Massachusetts. A version of this story first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor as part of the series “Japan Influential.”