Magazine article New Internationalist

Garbage Blues

Magazine article New Internationalist

Garbage Blues

Article excerpt

I'm sitting in an elegant coffee bar in Tokyo talking to my friend Chihlro. It's an unlikely place to be discussing garbage but that's the subject on her mind. A professor of political science at a prestigious university, Chihiro has just come back from a 'corrective class' - a couple of hours of enforced watching of videos and listening to lectures about garbage. It's her punishment for not following Japan's new rules on household waste.

It's time she can ill afford to lose. Chihiro leads a high pressure life lecturing at two universities, researching, publishing, organizing seminars, bringing up two young daughters, running a household. Her husband, also an academic, helps out. But even so, the burden is squarely hers.

The city of Yokohama, where Chihiro lives, has recently set up a new garbage disposal system. Homeowners are responsible for separating their garbage at source. But it's not just tin cans and paper. There's also glass and cloth and compost and, and, and... I can't even get my head around all the categories.

Chihiro tells me she's now required to separate things according to the new categories, then deliver the packets on given days, at given time, to a central point from where they are collected. Every day of the week is marked for one kind of disposal or other. Miss a day and you have to wait a whole week. Worse, you can't really leave garbage festering outside (even if it doesn't fester, you can't leave it there; it may blow up, emit annoying smells, or just ruin the landscape...) and so you are obliged to keep it inside the house.

Chihiro lives in a tiny flat. There isn't room to house mountains of garbage, even if it is only a week's worth of newspapers (they get four or five a day). So, with the new rules her house is bursting at the seams with 'stuff. It's imperative that she get it to the collection point on time, but she's helpless. Mornings are hectic: wake the two girls, prepare their lunch, run them to school, come back, run her husband to the train station, come back, clean up, get herself together, run to the station, an hour to class... and so on. There isn't a morning when she can easily make it. Or, more accurately, she may just be able to make it. She doesn't really have the time to load the garbage into her car, then join the queue to unload it at the dump. But missed deadlines mean 'corrective classes' - and she shudders to think of what missed corrective classes may lead to.

Chihiro finds the extra burden of managing the family garbage oppressive. She's stressed and depressed. She feels she can't cope.

I find it mystifying. This is Japan, i remind myself, one of the richest countries in the world. Is this what 'development' is all about? If so maybe we're better off in India where we don't yet have sophisticated garbage disposal rules - garbage is too valuable to waste and recycling is part of the informal economy. …

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