So here’s something I learned the hard way. When I last visited Japan and stayed at my wife’s parents’ home1 and I wanted to help around the house since I eat all their food, and create a load of laundry every time I am there. So, I tried to help out with the garbage and kitchen, and that’s how I learned the hard way how recycling works in Japan.
Policies around recycling will vary city by city, but my wife’s parents live near Tokyo in the city of Kawasaki, so I presume Tokyo will be similar. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong. Anyhow, in Japan you’ll often see products marked with things like this:
The 紙 mark is kami or “paper”, while プラ is short-hand for plastic. Obviously, if you see the “paper” symbol, it means you recycle as paper, and plastic for plastic. For example, if you have a yogurt cup, the cup itself would be “paper”, and the lid might be “plastic”, so you have to separate them and put them in different bins.
Also, P.E.T. bottles (plastic bottles for juice, water, etc) are often recycled separately from both of these. These are called petto botoru (ペットボトル) or just petto for short and frequently used for juice or tea drinks. Since there’s so many vending machines in Japan, it’s usually easy to find places to recycle your PET bottles, but for some reason it’s really hard to find other trashbins and recycling in Japan. So for trash items you often times have to just keep it in your bag or purse, and recycle it at home.
One thing I noticed is that recycling in Japan is kind of strict out of necessity because land for landfills is very limited. In Seattle, all recycling can be dumped in the same bin (they sort it later), but in Japan you have to separate everything by type. Paper cannot mix with plastic, and PET bottles cannot be mixed with other plastic. Also, I think lids and straws have be further separated, and possibly thrown away, but I can’t recall. Also, I think each household is issued special garbage/recycling bags for use too. I think this is because of the way garbage/recycling is processed; only certain types of bags will work.
Anyway, if you’re living in Japan, it’s good to get familiar with the local recycling policies in your area. Many major metropolitan areas have websites and/or training courses for foreigners new to the city, so definitely take advantage of those. A lot of neighborhoods have a communal trash pickup place, schedules, policies, etc. So, if you don’t want to annoy your neighbors, you should get familiar with the policies there pretty quick.2 But it’s not just about that, it’s about being a good guest in someone else’s country.
Anyhow, this is just a few tips to help foreigners living in Japan based on my learned experience getting scolded over and over again about putting things in the wrong bags and bins.
1 This is jikka (実家) in Japanese, but if you’re takling about someone else’s home, it’s more appropriate to be polite and say go-jikka (ご実家). On the other hand, it’s quite rude to refer to your own home with the go- prefix. Just be careful.
2 Because Japan is dense, and people live very close together, you really don’t want to annoy your neighbors.