Japan’s Zero-Waste Pioneers


Japan’s Zero-Waste Pioneers

Mazda writer Kenji Hall heads to Kamikatsu, in Japan’s Tokushima prefecture, to discover its unique approach to recycling.

Not many municipalities would think of building a hotel on the same property as the local waste depot. Kamikatsu, a town in southwestern Japan, did just that in 2020. For the 1,400 residents in this remote, mountainous corner of Tokushima prefecture, garbage is not something to be ashamed of. It’s part of Kamikatsu’s identity. Since adopting its “zero waste” policy in 2003 –– a first for a municipality in Japan –– the town has drastically reduced its waste footprint through a comprehensive recycling programme, leading to a recycling rate of over 80%, far exceeding the national average of 20%. It’s an impressive feat in a town that’s never had a waste-collection truck.

To see this in action, I head to the Kamikatsu and its Zero Waste Centre, a sprawling complex that, from above, resembles a giant question mark –– a design element encouraging visitors to consider their own recycling practices. Here, the town’s residents bring paper, plastic wrappings, bottles and glass containers, but also empty spray cans, used cooking oil, batteries, light bulbs and shoes. “Residents separate everything into 45 different categories –– nine for paper items alone,” says Hiroki Tamura, a Kamikatsu native and a member of the centre’s operations staff. Signs next to every container and shelf explain what the town earns from recycling or spends on disposal, and where it’s sent off to. Indoors, a collection box advertises an ongoing prefecture-wide campaign to recycle clothing.

In 2019, the most recent year of available statistics, Kamikatsu earned ¥1.8m from recycling, offsetting a quarter of disposal costs. Yet, Kamikatsu wasn’t always fastidious about recycling. Decades ago, residents would incinerate their waste — before, it was burned openly in fields or in metal drums — an initiative that was later scrapped and, in turn, forced Kamikatsu’s hand into considering recycling more efficiently. This decision to expand its recycling programme was out of necessity and addressed a need to raise funds as its population shrank; and it was a visiting US professor who suggested a zero-waste policy.

The Kamikatsu Zero Waste Centre is a symbol of residents’ commitment to a garbage-free future. One room houses the Kuru Kuru secondhand shop, where five tons of clothes, furniture, toys, books, and dishes are passed on for free every year. There’s also a laundromat, a learning centre, and a hotel that has only one single-use amenity –– a sliver of hand soap that guests slice from a block at check-in.

To build the centre, architect Hiroshi Nakamura capitalised on local resources: cedar cut from surrounding forests, traditional plant-derived dyes, and unwanted household items. The main building’s 540 windows –– a stunning patchwork of various sizes and materials –– were donated by the community. Inside, a chandelier of upside-down glass bottles hangs from the ceiling, and shards of ceramic plates and bowls decorate the floor. The hotel’s sign is made from farm tools, pipes and a bicycle wheel, and its four rooms have quilted rugs made with upcycled jeans.

Nearby, at Rise & Win Brewing, the same principles are applied to making craft beer. Since 2015, the brewery has used produce from the region in its rotating menu. Its weizen wheat beer is flavoured with peels from yukoh, a Kamikatsu-grown citrus, while the stout contains sweet potatoes from farms in neighbouring Naruto that supermarkets won’t buy. Last year, Rise & Win made its first beer through regenerative agriculture, using barley grown in fields around Kamikatsu that were fertilised with some of the 22 tons of byproduct waste that comes out of the brewery each year. “Even if you’re not aware of what zero waste is, by drinking our beer, you’re being introduced to the concept while helping to save local produce that would have been thrown out,” says Aki Ikezoe, who manages the Rise & Win General Store.

Eliminating waste is a community-wide effort. Local remake shop Kuru Kuru Kobo collects clothes, including kimonos, and turns them into stuffed animals, cushions and decorations; in the absence of taxi services, volunteer drivers shuttle residents to doctor visits and visitors to and from the airport for a fee. With half of the town’s population over the age of 65, and some too frail to drive, municipal officials and volunteers take turns as garbage runners for the elderly.

At Café Polestar, owner Terumi Azuma does everything possible to curb waste. When she buys produce from local farmers, she asks that no plastic packaging be used. She sells oil, sauces, spices, eggs, dairy products and rice by the gram. The café has never offered single-use hand towels or straws or napkins –– customers are asked to carry a handkerchief instead. “It might be a nuisance,” says Azuma. “But that will make them think about what zero waste means.”

Today, Kamikatsu hasn’t given up on its goal of eliminating waste, despite the challenges, says Azuma, who sat on a committee that updated Kamikatsu’s zero waste plan for 2030. In Kamikatsu, the focus is now on encouraging more businesses to make products easier to recycle while preserving local traditions and protecting the environment. “What’s important is that our zero waste activities be linked to the happiness of residents,” explains Azuma.