Japanese village hits 81% recycling rate, aims for 100% by 2020

A resident of Kamikatsu cuts up cardboard in order to recycle it. [Photo: YouTube]

A Japanese village aims to be the first zero waste municipality in the world by 2020 and has already reached an 81% recycling rate. A member of the Japanese Zero Waste Academy told EURACTIV that the feat is replicable elsewhere.

Akira Sakano spoke to EURACTIV’s Claire Stam on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she was one of the seven co-chairs for 2019.

She is Deputy Chief Officer at Zero Waste Academy, a not-for-profit organisation and drives Kamikatsu’s zero-waste strategy.

With its 1,700 or so residents, Kamikatsu was the first municipality in Japan to promote a zero waste policy, back in 2003. Fifteen years later, residents sort waste into 45 types in 13 categories in a bid to eliminate waste by 2020, without resorting to incinerators or landfills.

“Zero waste is the vision to build a society that enjoys a sustainable waste-free lifestyle, without using incineration or landfill. The three Rs are central as are the four Ls – local, low cost, low impact and low tech,” Akira Sakano explained.

“We’ve reached a recycling rate of 81% when Japan as a country reaches 20%. This has something empowering, we can show to the rest of the world that changes are possible. If we act together, then we can make bigger changes,” she added.

Recycling cheaper than incinerating

“I originally come from the city but in 2014, I moved to Kamikatsu and joined the community there. It is my conviction that by acting on the ground, at the local level, you can be more successful than in a big city,” she said.   

But in order to do so, Sakano explained that the decision-taking and implementation processes have to be re-designed. 

“As it is right now, there is a huge gap between the decision taken by policy makers and their implementation on the ground. This is actually a very big challenge to tackle,” she said.

But first, stakeholders must have a deep understanding of the industry in order to be able to reach out to governments and administrations, the waste expert explained.

“For example, if your region hosts companies that use recycled materials, you have to be able to explain to officials that this is the basis of the circular economy which in turn proves beneficial to the local economy,” she said.

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This implies citizens get involved in the project, she pointed out, adding that as a citizen, it is easier to jointly act with friends and neighbours.

“The willingness to get together and implement the project will get a boost when locals see the positive impact on the local economy,” she said.

Sakano also explained that until the early 2000s, Kamikatsu followed the Japanese way of disposing of rubbish, meaning incinerating it.

Eventually, the Japanese government introduced strict new regulations in a bid to reduce harmful dioxin emissions.

“That means that the municipality had to its close its incineration plant and figure out an economical and ecological alternative, it forced its residents to radically rethink how to manage their waste. This is how the zero waste project came up,” she said.

“As it is right now, the nearest incinerator is located in another town, meaning it would cost us six times more to transport and burn waste than it does to recycle it,” she added.

Growing popularity worldwide

Sakano said that the village is becoming more and more popular, getting increasing visits from outside Japan.

‘This means we can act together by exchanging our experiences and our expertise,” she pointed out.

“As a local community, we can’t change how the whole system works. But we are all in a way or another connected together throughout the world, and we can show global leaders that reaching a 80% recycling rate is possible,” she said.

“They need to see what is happening at the local level because this is actually where concrete actions are taking place. These actions can be the seen as the necessary initial step towards a bigger move,” she said.

“It’s not only about reducing waste, it is also, and maybe more importantly about revitalising our community, that is, economically and socially,” she added.

The circular economy agenda has gone through a remarkable transition in recent years. First seen as a rather vague concept, it has now become a European policy priority for which the European Commission recently received a global award in Davos.

Edited by Sam Morgan

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