In Tokyo, all garbage is not created equal

June 24th, 2013 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Why am I blue?: Trash in city-mandated garbage bags waiting to be collected

Why am I blue?: Trash in city-mandated garbage bags waiting to be collected

Two weeks ago the city of Chiba announced that it would start charging noncommercial residents for garbage collection in February. Like many municipalities throughout Japan it will use a garbage bag system: All refuse must be deposited for collection in special bags sold by the city. Presently, Chiba only charges businesses for refuse collection, but the cost of processing garbage continues to go up. In the beginning, residents will pay ¥36 for a 45-liter bag, regardless of whether the trash is burnable or non-burnable. That comes to about ¥0.8 per liter, which will only put a very small dent in the city’s revenue problems. Three years ago Chiba was spending ¥13.3 billion a year on refuse processing, and estimated that 45 liters worth of burnable trash cost ¥280 to dispose of. The same amount of non-burnable trash cost ¥220 to process.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, local governments started charging their residents for refuse collection around the turn of the millennium. Now, about 55 percent of municipalities in Japan do so, and most use the garbage bag system, which only pays for part of the cost. However, the burden on residents varies widely from one place to another, even within the prefecture of Tokyo.

People who live in the 23 wards don’t pay any extra for refuse collection, but those who live in the cities and towns of the Tama region of Western Tokyo pay a lot A woman interviewed in the article recently moved from Ota Ward to Mitaka City. Where she used to live she paid nothing for trash collection, but Mitaka requires that refuse be placed in bags, otherwise it won’t be picked up. A package of 10 purple 40-liter bags costs ¥750.

Burnable processing entails three stages: collection/transportation, burning and burial. For all 23 wards burial is taken care of by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which deposits the processed refuse in Tokyo Bay, but other municipalities in the prefecture have to dispose of their garbage on their own and don’t have free access to the bay. That means they have to find their own landfill sites and pay for their maintenance, and the closer the municipality is to central Tokyo, the more expensive the land and thus the more expensive the burial cost.

Some have to ship their refuse to other municipalities far away, which drives up the cost even more. Mitaka estimates it spends ¥61 per kg of waste; Musashino City, ¥72; and Koganei, which doesn’t even have its own incinerator, a whopping ¥96. The matter is apparently a contentious one in the Tokyo assembly. A representative of one of the 23 wards told Tokyo Shimbun that they never even discuss the matter, while a rep from one of the outlying cities claims the garbage issue is “the biggest matter separating us from the wards.” He believes all local governments in the prefecture should bear refuse costs equally.

Not surprisingly, being forced to pay for refuse collection changes one’s outlook on the environment. One professor in the article says that residents of the 23 wards “aren’t conscious of the garbage problem,” while residents of the Tama region seem to have been enlightened. Recyling, which is mandatory in both Tama and the 23 wards but free for most materials in both places, is carried out at a much higher rate in Tama, thus reflecting its residents’ greater appreciation of the environmental impact of their consumption. It seems that when residents are charged for throwing away trash, they throw out less.

But local governments aren’t consistent. In the city where we live in northern Chiba bags are required for almost all non-recyclable trash. But the main difference between our city and others is that throwing away sodai-gomi — oversized refuse such as furniture — is free. All you do is leave it at a refuse station on the appointed day. When we lived in Tokyo we had to call up the local ward office and describe what we were leaving for pickup at a predetermined time and then buy stickers in the appropriate amount at a convenience store to attach to the refuse item, otherwise it wouldn’t be picked up.

From what we’ve heard, our current city’s policy about sodai-gomi attracts folks from surrounding cities where they have to pay. They just truck their junk in and leave it at a refuse station.

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5 Responses

  1. Nishi-Tokyo-Shi has the colored bags too…yes, they need to just standardize this mess of a system across the whole prefecture.

    Sidenote: I once had a friend throw some non plastic garbage into my plastic garbage can and was left a bunch of pictures of my trash bag being dissected along with some plastic label that had my name and address inside my mailbox. Super creepy!

  2. The problem with having to pay and organise for sodai-gomi collection is that in my area where you have to pay ¥1000 per item, people just go and dump it in a rice field instead. Surely better to have cheaper or free pickup, or as in Australia, have the city go around twice a year and collect things for free and the other times you pay.

  3. Thank you very much for this interesting article, especially about the costs of refuse processing. I have often talked to Japanese about this when they said “Oh, our garbage bags are so expensive!” Where I live, a set of 10 large bags for burnable trash (probably 40 liters) is sold for 300 yen, while 10 small bags (maybe 15-20 liters) sell for 200 Yen. I often mentioned that paying 30 Yen for a large bag could never pay for the processing of the garbage, but heard “It is just burned” as an answer, so many people seem to believe that the price of the bag covers the full price of the processing. It is very interesting to read here that the real cost is about 10 times higher.

  4. Surely trash collection fees are covered by the extortionate taxes we pay?!

  5. Of course, but depending on the local government more funds may be needed if the budget for refuse processing is limited and the cost of that processing is always going up.

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