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The inspiring thing that happened when a Japanese village went almost waste-free


Growth prospects: Akira Sakano hopes her green approach will spread across Japan
Image: REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
The village of Kamikatsu sits among verdant rice fields and mountainous forest on the Western Japanese island of Shikoku. With less than 1,700 residents, it’s the smallest village on the island, but for the last few years, has been garnering headlines around the world.
For decades, the village had given little thought to processing its waste, either burning it in an open incinerator or burying it in the ground.
A failed new incinerator project, however, forced the village to rethink its strategy and a lofty ambition was born - to become a zero-waste town by 2020.
Today, more than 80% of the village’s waste is kept out of incinerators and landfill, but the transformation wasn’t easy or quick.
Lifestyle shift
Kamikatsu’s journey towards zero waste started more than two decades ago. The town had recently built, at great expense, a new incinerator to take care of its waste. But it was rendered a health and safety risk by the central government, because of the number of harmful dioxins it released into the air.
So the village had to think again. The most obvious solution was to shift the waste to other municipalities, but this was an expensive move, and it wasn’t a sustainable solution for the small economy.
Instead, the village decided to plough its efforts into reducing as much waste as possible, and the Zero Waste Academy, led by Akira Sakano, was born.
In practice, the idea is quite simple: waste gets separated into categories and wherever possible is reused, recycled, or reduced.
But while not necessarily revolutionary - after all, millions of streets around the globe offer up colour-coded bins to the local governments for collection on at least a weekly basis - Sakano’s scheme goes well beyond that.
Business and restaurants join the zero waste scheme
Image: Zero Waste Academy
For one, the rubbish is separated into at least 45 categories. At the top level, food waste, metals, paper, plastics, glass bottles, food trays, furniture, and machines all get separated.
Within that, there are often subcategories, so metal will get separated into aluminum and steel, or paper gets separated into newspaper, cardboard, paper carton, paper carton with aluminum (coated), hard paper tubes, paper cups, and shredded paper.
“By doing this level of segregation, we can actually turn it over to the recycler knowing that they will treat it as a high-quality resource,” explains Sakano, who is one of the Co-Chairs at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos this year.

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