It was not that long ago that life in Kamikatsu revolved around the state of the rice crop and the number of tourists arriving to soak in the restorative waters of the local hot spring.
Now the tiny village, in the densely wooded mountains of Shikoku island in south-west Japan, has a new obsession: rubbish.
Since 2003 Kamikatsu’s 2 000 residents have been part of a so-far unheralded ecological experiment that, if successful, could force bin-men across the country to look for new jobs.
Urban Japanese householders, who balk at having to divide rubbish into flammable and non-flammable items, bottles and cans, should spare a thought for their counterparts in Kamikatsu.
Here household waste must be separated into no fewer than 34 categories before being taken to a recycling centre where volunteers administer firm but polite reprimands to anyone who forgets to remove the lid from a plastic bottle.
At stake is Kamikatsu’s quest to end its dependence on incineration and landfill by 2020 and claim the title of Japan’s first zero-waste community.
An hour’s drive from the nearest city and 590km from Tokyo, the village was forced to change the way it managed its waste in 2000, when new regulations on emissions forced it to shut down its two incinerators.
“We were no longer able to burn our rubbish, so we thought the best policy was not to produce any in the first place,” said Sonoe Fujii of the village’s Zero Waste Academy, a non-profit organisation that oversees the scheme.
Despite initial opposition, the zero waste declaration, passed by the village assembly in 2003, has spawned an unlikely army of ecowarriors.
When Kikue Nii is not catching fish from the river at the bottom of her garden, she is up to her elbows in garbage.
“At first it was very hard work,” said the 65-year-old, as she emptied another bowl of vegetable peelings into the electric garbage disposal unit next to her back door.
In the corner of her garden, more kitchen waste sat in a conventional composter, waiting to help nurture a new supply of tomatoes and spring onions.
“I was working when the scheme started and found myself spending my lunch break dealing with our rubbish,” she said.
“It took ages to sort everything into different types. But it comes naturally now.”
That Nii and her neighbours struggled in the early days of the zero-waste campaign is understandable, given the daunting number of rules.
Glass bottles must be relieved of their caps and sorted by colour.
Plastic bottles for soy sauce and cooking oil must be kept separate from polyethylene teraphthalate bottles.
All bottles, cans and even plastic food wrappers must be washed thoroughly; newspapers and magazines have to be piled into neat bundles tied with a twine made from recycled milk cartons. —