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Waste not

Japan, as anyone who has visited will note, is a kaleidoscope of unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensations, where deep historical traditions in wood, paper, fibre and other sustainable practices collide with rabid headlong futurism and an often oddbal
Garbage bins on the city street, Fukuoka, Japan, encourage separation of materials. photo by ptaa2010 / <a href=""></a>

Japan, as anyone who has visited will note, is a kaleidoscope of unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensations, where deep historical traditions in wood, paper, fibre and other sustainable practices collide with rabid headlong futurism and an often oddball, on-the-go consumerism. From one of the world's most isolated societies in the mid-19th century, Japan has experienced relatively quick industrialization and aggressive growth to become the world's third-largest economy. And yet this thriving country, also widely considered one of the most modern and progressive in the world, is also dedicated to environmental protection—a difficult job in a relatively small island nation with a dense population of 127 million. 

Given the massive amount of trash produced by this post-modern society, one of Japan's biggest environmental issues, obviously, is waste management. (For instance, the innovative packaging of one rice triangle—a millions-sold-per-day snack available everywhere—that keeps wet rice and its crisp seaweed wrap separate until the first bite, yields no less than three pieces of plastic film waste). And yet unlike other Asian nations, street garbage is rarely seen anywhere; in fact, Japan is one of the cleanest countries in the world. This is most readily clear in the capital of Tokyo which, as home to 36 million people, remains the largest, single, urban centre on Earth. The Japanese are generally clean, but how they achieved this level of orderliness with sanitation amid what could be urban chaos is remarkable.

For a long while during post-war times, Japan lacked landfill space to accommodate its trash. The initial solution was to burn huge amounts of it in dedicated municipal facilities, but air pollution policies eventually forced the government to modernize those facilities into energy sources, and reduce the amounts incinerated through aggressive recycling policies. These initiatives are manifest in the dedicated separations of glass, metal, PET-plastic bottles, and burnables seen in all in-home, commercial and public waste collection stations.    

Stricter waste management regulations forced residents to creatively address trash disposal. For example, the small town of Kamikatsu has a goal of producing zero waste by 2020. With the closest incinerator another town away, transport costs would make the cost of burning its waste six times higher compared to repurposing and recycling those same materials into 45 different categories, an enterprise that now accounts for 80 per cent of all the town's waste. A recent OECD report noted only one per cent of Japan's overall municipal waste goes to landfills compared to 49 per cent in Australia and 55 per cent in Canada. Japan's Plastic Waste Management Institute calculated that 83 per cent of the country's plastic waste is recycled or incinerated, the latter yielding both power and heat for local facilities. (Still, Japan's per capita waste production remains about half of the 720 kg/person produced annually by every Canuck, which, in turn, is seven-per-cent higher than the consumer-capital United States).

While Japan continues work on waste reduction, big-time energy conservation and a turn to renewables in this notoriously fossil-fuel-intense country are also underway. Having seriously embraced clean tech, the country is now the second-largest installer of solar panels behind China. According to a recent report in Fortune, solar panels and Japan-developed LED lights helped businesses cut electricity consumption by as much as 40 per cent. In addition, Japan's once widespread nuclear reactors have now mostly been replaced by post-2011-catastrophe efficiency gains that reduced consumption by 15 to 20 per cent.

And there's more going on in energy savings: Japan recently set new targets for over 20 different forms of electronics and domestic appliances—e.g., air conditioners that are already 68 per cent more efficient than in 1998 must double that again by 2020; Panasonic's new silicon-wafer solar cells have achieved the world's highest light-to-electricity conversion rate at 24.7 per cent (versus a current average of 10 per cent); several corporations are jointly developing next-gen semiconductors that will require a tenth of the power presently consumed; a university researcher has developed an ultra-efficient honeycomb-shaped wind turbine that could triple the energy produced by offshore turbines; and in the outdoor-heating market now dominated by the ridiculously wasteful gas heater (take that, Whistler businesses), an Osaka-based inventor has come up with a low-energy LED technology called a hot pad.

With Japan's energy efficiency and waste reductions nearly twice as effective as our own, it seems that sparsely populated Canada could learn a thing or two from the much busier Land of the Rising Sun.

Leslie Anthony is a biologist, writer and author of several popular books on environmental science.