The secret behind why Japanese people never litter: 4 incredibly simple rules

Japanese football fans stole the thunder when they cleaned up an entire stadium last week. It is a routine way of life back in their country, we discover.

On Saturday, June 14, the Japanese shocked the world when spectators voluntarily cleaned up an entire stadium after their team lost in a World Cup soccer match against Argentina. Regardless of who littered, the Japanese spectators picked up cans, tissues, even pieces of confetti and deposited the trash in the dustbins on their way out. This astonishing act wasn’t some group act of protest or a statement of some kind. The Japanese were just cleaning up after themselves, which, apparently, comes naturally to them and is a big part of their culture. We dug a little bit more, curious to understand how an entire country’s people practise “cleaning up.”

Japan recycles 77% of its waste as a nation

Japan has long been a world leader when it comes to recycling. Since 1997, when consumers and businesses were obliged to segregate plastic wast for the first time, the country has passed several laws to ensure safe disposal of plastic waste. According to the Plastic Waste Management Institute, at 77%, Japan’s recycling rate is almost twice that of UK and way beyond when compared to the 20% figure of USA. Plastic items such as PET bottles and food wrappers are collected from residential areas for free and are marked clearly to be treated separately as plastic waste.

Japan is an astonishingly clean country. In Tokyo for instance, public toilets, the streets, parks, lakes, and all public places in general are almost completely litter-free. Here are a few clues on how it works:

Much fewer dustbins

Weird as it may sound, the country has made it a habit to keep “lesser” number of dustbins in public spaces. The government doesn’t spend millions on billboards and notices threatening people to  use dustbins or in employing cleaners to keep the streets clean. Everybody just follows a simple policy – Do not throw your trash on the floor.

Common road signs in Japan tell people to carry their own garbage and take it home. To reinforce this, a lot of public areas in Japanese cities don’t have dustbins at all and this actually works. Instead of making the world their dustbin, people just prefer to carry it with them and throw it in the dustbin when they’re home.

In areas where there are dustbins, they go crazy!

You won’t see one dustbin anywhere, you’ll see a dozen! While most of us struggle to segregate waste into 2 categories, namely wet and dry waste, the Japanese sort their garbage in categories ranging from 10 to 44, as in the town of Kamikatsu. Kamikatsu aims to become Japan’s first zero-waste community by 2020. Seen below is a typical ‘recycle bins area’ in Japan which features a plethora of categories ranging from plastic, paper, glass, and even bottle-tops.

Japan even has a set of its own recycling pictures for identifying different kind of wastes. Some of these are:

Use a designated bag and time if you want your trash removed

1. Combustible – Kitchen garbage, paper, wood, etc.

2. Non-Combustible – Glass, china, metals, etc.

3. Recyclable – Bottles, cans, PET bottles, newspaper, etc.

To dispose off trash, one is required to use trash bags designated by local authorities. The trash has to be taken to a designated pickup point on the morning of the scheduled collection day and will not be collected if the designated bag isn’t used. 

‘Never walk and eat’

Some traditional Japanese values and practices contribute their mite to the cleanliness craze. In Japan, it’s considered rude if you eat anything while walking around. Japan has the highest per-capita concentration of vending machines in the world. But the practice of  ‘never walk and eat at the same time’ means that everyone just finishes their food from the vending machines while standing there, and then dispose off the wrapper in a recycling bin that almost always accompanies vending machines. Most people in Japan also carry a handkerchief around at all times to avoid using paper towels and tissue paper.

The Japanese are borderline neurotic about cleanliness and by default, they all follow a certain set of rules which dictate that they must always be dressed immaculately and keep clean. It would be a logistical nightmare to adopt the exact Japanese model of recycling in India, let alone teach people not to throw around their trash like it’s no one’s business. But if we all take a lesson from the World Cup incident and just learn to clean up after ourselves, it’s definitely a start.

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