Kamikatsu, Japan’s zero-waste city, has lessons for a sustainable future

KAMIKATSU, Japan – Nestled in the mountains of the Japanese island of Shikoku, a town of about 1,500 people is on an ambitious path to litter-free living.

In 2003, Kamikatsu became the first municipality in Japan to make a zero waste declaration. The city has since transformed its open burning practices used for waste disposal into a buy-consume-dispose system in an effort to achieve carbon neutrality. Today, the city estimates that it is more than 80% on its way to achieving this goal by 2030.

But even for a city of its size, carbon and waste neutrality is a high bar. And with more than half of its residents over the age of 65, the rural community is rapidly shrinking. The city is working with manufacturers to encourage them to use more recyclable materials, which would help reduce waste and burning.

Still, Kamikatsu and its people have a lot to learn about how to live more sustainably, and many of the measures they have adopted could be extended to larger cities.

Recycle in 45 different ways

The Zero Waste Center is the city’s recycling facility, where residents can sort their trash into 45 categories — there are nine ways to sort paper products alone — before tossing the rest in a pile for incinerators. Residents clean and dry dirty items so they can be recycled.

The city offers an incentive system where residents can collect recycling points in exchange for environmentally friendly products. There are signs showing what new items will be made from these recycled items and how much money the city is saving by working with recycling companies rather than burning the trash. It is a way of reminding them of their social responsibility.

“When residents cooperate, the money used for recycling is reduced at the same time, so you can see the merit of cooperating,” said Momona Otsuka, the center’s 24-year-old environment director.

Two things are key to creating a large-scale recycling culture, she said: policies, such as Japan’s 1997 law that gave cities the power to recycle waste, and cooperation from residents.

Thrift store ‘Kuru kuru’

Attached to the Zero Waste Center is a thrift store where local residents can drop off unwanted items, so others can pick them up for free. All they have to do is weigh the item they remove from the store and record the weight in the ledger, so the store can track the volume of reused items.

In January alone, 447 kilograms (985 pounds) of items were recovered, ranging from small items like unused batteries and sake glasses to furniture, maternity clothes and toys. The number is displayed inside the store.

The “kuru kuru” (or “round and round” in Japanese) shop itself is made up of recycled items. The flooring incorporates shards of glass from donated plates. Mismatched windows are all donated by residents’ houses. There is a massive chandelier made of glass bottles.

“We also try to show the idea of ​​zero waste through architecture,” Otsuka said.

The craft brewery and the circle of life

Rise and Win Brewing Co. brews two types of zero-waste craft beer, made from farm crops that would otherwise be thrown away because they are too deformed to be sold publicly. The brewery works with different companies to use leftover food ingredients. The brewery is also made of recycled materials.

For years, the brewery tried to find an effective way to donate leftover grain from brewing beer. Composting was time consuming and delivering fertilizer to farmers was a lot of work. So last year they developed a way to convert waste grain into liquid fertilizer, which is then used to grow barley for beer.

“We have finally achieved a circular economy system,” said store manager Aki Ikezoe.

Lasting sleep

The Why Hotel opened in 2020 as part of the Zero Waste Center facility, which is built in the shape of a question mark to represent the question: why are we creating so much waste? The hotel looks like a remote cabin in the woods, and at night the stars look like a planetarium.

Each guest receives six bins to sort trash during their stay. The stylish decorations are all repurposed materials, including a patchwork quilt made from denim scraps and a wall display made from ropes. Furniture is salvaged from showroom models.

The hotel emphasizes using what you need. Upon check-in, guests cut individual bars of soap so they only get the amount they need for their stay. The coffee beans are ground according to the number of cups the guest wants, so nothing goes to waste.

Reduce food waste

Kamikatsu residents and businesses strive to minimize food waste as much as possible. For example, at Café Polestar, there was a dish available for lunch to reduce waste: curry made with local vegetables.

Even the leaf used to decorate their dishes was produced locally, by a company called Irodori, which has been selling products from the lush Kamikatsu forest since 1986. There are 154 families in town involved in the project, mostly women aged 70+ who can pluck leaves to create intricate designs. The sheets are then sold to high-end spas, hotels and restaurants in Japan and other Asian countries, to create long-lasting decorations.

“Our company helps people realize that there are valuables even in the mundane everyday things around them,” said Tomoji Yokoishi, general manager of Irodori.

The carpooling system

Kamikatsu is located about an hour from the nearest city of Tokushima. To get around town and to the airport to return to Tokyo, we used the city’s carpool system. About 40 people share a handful of cars so they can drive residents or visitors. (Even the town’s mayor is registered to be a driver.)

About this story

Text editing by Paul Schemm. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Editing of the project by Reem Akkad. Design and development by Andrew Braford.

About Walter J. Leslie

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