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Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005


Yokohama leads way in trash separation

Staff writer

Yolanda Bolithons, a resident of Yokohama from Seattle, has five garbage cans at her house: one each for plastic, cardboard, PET bottles, metallic waste and combustible items.

News photo
Officials of Yokohama's Environmental Services Bureau put stickers on garbage bags to show they contain items that should be disposed of on a different collection day.

Every time she throws away a PET bottle, she takes the plastic label off, puts the bottle in one can and the cap and label in another.

It was hard at first to get used to separating garbage into so many categories.

"But I feel like I was OK after maybe six months," said Bolithons, a mother of two. "We have so much garbage, and I agree with recycling."

To reduce waste and promote recycling, Yokohama expanded its trash separation categories in April to include plastic containers and packaging, paper, spray cans and old cloth.

After the change, and with the help of residents, the city's garbage output from April to November fell by some 360,000 tons, or 33 percent, compared with the same period in fiscal 2001. Yokohama had originally set a goal to slash its waste by 30 percent from fiscal 2001 levels by fiscal 2010.

Yokohama's new system is one attempt by officials nationwide to promote recycling, but although local governments, consumers and businesses are all making efforts to do more, there is still room for improvement.

The Environment Ministry is trying to revise the Law for the Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packages to push recycling further, but debate rages over who should do the work and who should bear the costs.

In Yokohama, the new separation system not only helped transform more waste into reusable resources, it also increased citizens' awareness of the garbage issue, according to Masaki Fujihira, an official at the city's resources and waste recycling bureau.

"(Citizens) stopped bringing unnecessary things home, for example by telling shop clerks not to wrap products," he said.

But not all municipalities have such stringent recycling policies and many cash-strapped local governments cannot afford to collect the bulky materials.

While collection for recycling glass bottles and cans by municipalities covered more than 97 percent of the nation's population in fiscal 2003, only 59.3 percent of the population had their plastic recycled; the figure for paper packaging was only 27 percent, according to the Environment Ministry.

To recycle plastic containers and wrapping, municipalities have to separate them from other materials, crush them and tie them into bundles, which makes it more costly than collecting other waste, said Masami Hamada, manager of Yokohama's resources and waste policy division.

The city's budget for collection and separation of the new trash categories is 2.4 billion yen this fiscal year, he said. Of that, 1.7 billion yen will be spent on plastics alone.

The ministry meanwhile estimates that municipalities together spend some 300 billion yen annually to collect, sort and store used containers and packages.

Last month, representatives of the Japan Association of City Mayors urged the ministry to revise the recycling law to make industries shoulder part of the cost of collecting and sorting of packaging -- something the business community is loathe to do.

A ministry panel is currently discussing changes to the law, and the ministry hopes to submit an amendment to the ordinary Diet session that starts in January.

Some panel members argue that businesses would feel inclined to cut back on the use of containers and wrapping if they were to share the costs. They also note that companies can pass the costs on to consumers.

But Michiko Ikeda, of the Environment, Science and Technology Bureau of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), said it is difficult for firms to include such costs in prices, due to severe price competition.

Many companies have also made sufficient efforts through such means as using lighter containers, she said.

Keidanren pointed out that even under the current recycling law, businesses spent some 45 billion yen in fiscal 2004 to manufacture products using materials from recycled containers and packages.

But many consumers think manufacturers should do more.

"In Japan, there is so much packaging. Everything is wrapped three, four, five times. . . . If you could stop all the packaging, there wouldn't be so much garbage to sort," Yokohama resident Bolithons said.

Environment Ministry officials say companies should share the costs based on the "extended producer responsibility" approach advocated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1994.

The concept is that producers should accept a significant responsibility for the disposal of their products, which would provide them with an incentive to take the environment into consideration when designing them.

Major European countries have adopted the idea in their waste management techniques, and companies operating in those countries play important roles in recycling, according to Shusaku Yamaya, an economics professor at Toyo University.

In Germany, for example, companies set up bins to collect containers and packages and shoulder the costs of collection, he said.

While it would be more efficient in Japan for municipalities with waste collection knowhow to continue collecting containers, instead of shifting the work to companies, businesses should play a bigger role in recycling by sharing the costs, Yamaya said.

But Keidanren officials argue that municipalities and consumers should make greater efforts to slash those costs before businesses are slapped with a heavier financial burden.

For example, local governments should teach consumers to sort their waste more thoroughly and thus reduce garbage separation costs.

In Yokohama's Kanazawa Ward, at least one out of 20 to 30 trash bags collected on any given day contains improperly sorted garbage, according to Yoshihiko Kondo, vice chief of the local office of the city's environmental services bureau.

To get residents to abide by the rules, the office puts stickers on such bags to show they contain mixed trash or that they should be put out on a different day, and leaves them on the curb.

Professor Yamaya said about half the plastic waste currently collected by municipalities is not recycled because it is mixed with other materials, including half empty ketchup bottles.

"If consumers clean the bottle (before throwing it away), it becomes recyclable material," he said, noting municipalities need to conduct more effective campaigns to raise consumer awareness.

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