Zero Waste Moving

Zero Impact Goals has been silent for the past few weeks, and I’m sorry about that.

I’ve just moved from Tokyo, Japan back to my childhood home in Massachusetts, USA  after three years of living and working in Tokyo. This has been a huge adjustment for me, not just because of the move itself, but also because I have had to confront all of the stuff I have accumulated over the past three years.

My problem with Minimalism

When I set out to create this blog, I never considered myself a minimalist, despite how often the minimalist and environmentalist communities overlap. To me, minimalism was always associated with the tastefully bare designs of MUJI or a slightly scaled up Ikea, but always inescapably tied to some form of consumerism. I saw minimalism as a design aesthetic, rather than a lifestyle. And I wasn’t interested in the hypocrisy of purchasing stuff to give the impression that I had less stuff, you know?

“I saw minimalism as a design aesthetic, rather than a lifestyle.”

Through my experience moving out of my Tokyo apartment, however, I had my minimalist epiphany. Despite what Pinterest or Instagram had led me to believe, minimalism is less about the beautiful natural wood and plain white porcelain aesthetics, (duh!) and more about being intentional about what material things you bring into your life, choosing them for their usefulness in your particular lifestyle, and not because it’s the latest thing.

Confronting the mess

The thing about moving is, it sucks. Hard. This is no less true for my tiny Tokyo apartment. In the three years I had lived in this 21 meter squared space, you would not believe the amount of stuff I had accumulated. In my misguided attempt to make it feel like home I thought filling it with my stuff would do the trick. So when it came to the end of my time in Japan, I found myself dealing with a seemingly infinite amount of clothes, shoes, spices, dishes, hobby thingamajigs, furniture, and on and on. Minimalism suddenly made sense to me. Luckily for me, and perhaps for us all, moving offers us a chance to wipe the slate clean. The task then simplified to figuring out whether I could give any of my stuff away to someone who would use it, and if so, to whom.

Trying to Reuse in Japan

My goal for trying to sell or give away things rather than just throw them out was to extend the lifespan of each item, and hopefully prevent it from languishing in a landfill when there was someone who would get additional use from it. However, in selling/giving away nearly all of my earthly possessions, I discovered an unforeseen difficulty; Japanese people, in general, do not like to purchase or own secondhand items. This shocked me, especially because of the reputation Japan has for being such an environmentally-friendly country and the rise of thrift-store fashion in trendy places like Harajuku. I have heard all sorts of reasons for this squeamishness, everything from Shinto theology to superstition to materialism, and I will not attempt to guess why this is true. Nevertheless, I had the hardest time trying to sell or give away anything to recycle shops in Tokyo. One particularly egregious example is of a secondhand furniture company, who tried to charge me $100 for them to dispose of (not re-sell!) a basically new couch simply because it was not an import brand. I ended up giving most things away to friends or other westerners in Japan who weren’t put off by secondhand goods.

Back in the land of Capitalism

So, spoiler altert- I eventually made it back to the old US of A. I’ve been here for about two weeks now, and although I’m still adjusting to both the time zone and the reverse culture shock, I have been able to keep my possessions to a minimum (so far) and have added some sustainable habits, such as composting, to my routine here that I was unable to do in Japan. Hopefully now that I’m back I’ll be able to post more regular updates to this blog, so please keep checking back. I will speak to you soon!

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!