One Week of Waste

Japan has a reputation for being an extremely eco-conscious country. Living in the capital, Tokyo, should make it easy for me to lead a sustainable lifestyle, right? Well, not so much.

I started off this week with the goal of trying to reduce my consumption of single use products as much as possible, and quickly found that it was going to be harder than I thought.

Day 1 – Friday

I started tracking my garbage on a Friday because that’s when burnable garbage, the most common type of trash I generate, is collected. In Japan, we (add link to bunbetsu post)separate our garbage into a lot of different categories to ensure that everything is recycled properly. With all of last week’s garbage out for pickup, I can have a clean slate.

I had the day off today, so I used the day to finish up some projects I have been working on lately. For dinner I made some curry, and to give you an idea of just how much waste is a byproduct of the food industry in Japan, I took a photo of the standard plastic packaging used for fresh produce here.

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Day 2 – Saturday

Saturday was more of a chill day- I spent it doing some chores around the house. One thing that I’ve really come to like about Japan is how everyone hang-dries their laundry. Well, it’s handy in the summer, but in the winter it can take a full day to dry.

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I have been on a bit of a spending freeze lately, trying to save up some money for when my sister visits me in a few weeks, which is actually helping me to cut down on the amount of waste I’m producing because I have to be really intentional about the things I buy.

Day 3 – Sunday

Another chill day on Sunday. The weather has been fluctuating a bunch lately and I find that tends to make me feel kind of lethargic. A day of self-pampering at home was just what I needed to get ready for the work week. Check out the post I wrote about some of the spa products you can make with ingredients you have around your home when it comes out sometime next week.

Day 4 – Monday

Back to work today. I usually pack lunch, but sometimes when I forget or don’t have enough time in the mornings I buy lunch from the convenience store, which means a lot of packaging. One thing about Japanese workplaces that makes it pretty hard to achieve a zero waste lifestyle is the custom of giving small gifts of food (all individually wrapped) whenever someone travels, or even just when people feel like it. My office at the school where I teach on Mondays and Wednesdays is particularly close, so I’m constantly fending off little gifts of food. Today though, I was given one of those chocolate-covered ice cream popsicles, and couldn’t pass it up.

Day 5 – Tuesday

I was at a different office on Tuesday, and actually didn’t have too much actual work to do. I used the day to work on some upcoming posts for Zero Impact Goals, which I should be rolling out soon. After work I met up with some friends for a birthday celebration at an all-you-can-eat kushiage restaurant.

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Kushiage is basically little morsels of fried food on a bamboo skewer, and you can easily eat between 20-50 skewers in a meal. As you can imagine, this generates a lot of waste per person, even though bamboo is both sustainable and biodegradable, as well as readily abundant here in Japan. In Shinjuku, where the restaurant is, used bamboo skewers are sorted into the “burnable waste” category, and are incinerated in one of the many waste treatment plants in the city. For those of you interested in this sort of thing, I will explain more about the waste disposal process in Tokyo in a later post.

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Day 6 – Wednesday

Wednesday was kind of a hectic day at the school where I teach English. Aside from the normal 2 hour block class I teach on Wednesday mornings, I was also asked to join a class for first years at the last minute. Working in a school, I am constantly reminded of how much paper is used on a daily, even hourly, basis just to keep things running as usual. Everything here is largely still paper-based, which came as quite a shock to me, given Japan’s reputation for being such a tech-savvy country. But in fact, even though a lot of new technology is produced here, Japan is an aging country with a population of elderly late technology adopters, so sadly going paper-free in favor of digital is still out of reach for now.

Day 7 – Thursday

We have reached the end of the week! It has been a really interesting experience to collect my garbage for a week, forcing me to think actively about how much waste I was generating. I learned some lessons along the way too; first and foremost is that straws are the bane of my existence. Those insidious tubes are everywhere, and multiple times over the course of the week, I found myself suddenly “coming to” with a straw in my mouth and realizing I had overlooked it again. Even restaurants that were very supportive when I explained my zero waste ambitions often slipped up by including a straw in their drinks.

Another lesson I learned is that just a little effort on my part can decrease the amount of waste I’m producing. In Japan, only certain types of plastic can be recycled, and even if it can be recycled, it must be incinerated if there is any food on it. It may seem obvious, but taking the extra 30 seconds to rinse out plastic containers is one of the easiest things you can do to reduce waste.

Similarly, I got better about carrying a reusable bottle with me at all times or just not buying a drink if I had forgotten my bottle. Summers in Japan can be brutally hot, so carrying a water bottle in my bag has become a necessity. Unfortunately I’m still using one made of PCTG (BPA-free) while I search for a good-quality glass or stainless steel one, but hey, Zero Impact Goals is about the baby steps.

So, onto the main event! What does my One Week of Waste look like? Check it out:

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This is all the garbage I generated in just one week. Definitely not as bad as it could have been, but I see some areas where I could make some serious improvements. One thing you may notice is the amount of tissues I go through in a week…kind of gross. I had the misfortune of catching a slight summer cold which left me sneezing and sniffling constantly. Obviously switching to a handkerchief would be a less wasteful option, but I can’t seem to get over the ick factor yet. If you have any suggestions for hygenic alternatives to single-use tissues, please let me know!

Let the journey begin!

You may notice that journeys are a recurring motif on this blog. That’s for a good reason. Not only does it represent exploration and new destinations, but also a long, somewhat arduous process. Even though I love traveling to new places, these days we can simply hop in a car, bus, train or plane (all while trying not to cringe at your carbon footprint expanding) and get from point A to point B with comparatively little effort. The figurative “journey” to sustainable living, however, is just as much about the process as it is about the destination.

Growing up in the 21st century, we have gotten used to what I like to call Instant Gratification Culture. The internet is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in any number of positive ways, but there is no denying that having access to unlimited information in the palm of our hands has changed the way we live, for better or for worse. In fact, it’s not just the internet. The fad diet craze started taking off in the mid-1990s, when people started wanting results now. Our society has been shifting in this direction for decades, even centuries (if you count the whole horse-drawn cart to automobile shift, which I do). Humans strive for efficiency- and why not? Our time is short, we reason, and time is money. While the dubious wisdom of measuring the value of our time in currency is a subject for a different post, the sentiment is something I can get behind.

“Time is money.”

Translation: do something valuable with your time.

Value-added time is, in my opinion, a supremely worthy goal. The best part about it is that value is an inherently subjective measure, so only you can decide which activities are worthy of your time. Spent all day alone in your room playing video games but hit a new high score? Boom, value added. It’s all about being intentional with your time and actively choosing each activity you pursue because of the value it adds to your life vs. the time you spend on it. And “valuable” things are not always huge undertakings. Your time can be just as valuable when you use it on a split-second decision as when you use it on a weeks-long project. Similarly, when it comes to living a sustainable lifestyle, small intentional choices made every day can be just as beneficial as a sudden and massive overhaul of your entire life. This idea is the fundamental basis behind my Zero Impact Goals philosophy- every time you make an environmentally-friendly choice or form a sustainable habit, that is value-added time and progress towards your goal, no matter if it was 5 seconds or 5 years in the making.

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