The village of Kamikatsu in Japan is committed to a comletely waste-free environment like very few other human-occupied areas on earth. Perched 1500m up in the verdant hills of the Tokushuma Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, south of the Japanese mainland, Kamikatsu is a small, mountainous, rice paddy lined town with a population of no more than 2,000 people. The dense forests that surround Kamikatsu on all sides are barely halted by the town’s infrastructure, with the village serving as little more than an oasis amidst the vast wildlands that encompass it.
The Tokushuma prefecture produces rice, vegetables and flowers for the island, and is the nation’s largest supplier of cauliflower and lotus roots. Kamikatsu village, originally established as a timber producing station in the Edo Period (1603-1868), is now largely inhabited by an ageing population, with nearly half of the residents working in the agriculture, forestry or fishery industries. The town also specialises in the production of yuzu, a citrus fruit native to East Asia. Parts of plants harvested in the region, such as colouring leaves, persimmon leaves, branches and leaves of nandina, camellia leaves, and blossoms of plum, cherry, and peach, are sold as core products used in the prominent “tsumamono (garnish)”, popular in Japanese cuisine. Since the 1950’s, Kamikatsu has suffered a steady decline in population and economic importance in the area, but efforts of the community in recent decades have attempted to re-stimulate the town’s economy and appeal.
In the 1990’s, Kamikatsu’s waste disposal was like many remote rural settlements around the world: either individual residents or local authorities would collect garbage and dump it within the surrounding area, burn it in incinerators or let it accumulate. Greenhouse gas emissions and the toxins released into the soil and plants created harmful effects both for the residents and surrounding plant and animal wildlife. It was decided in 2003, with the creation of the Zero Waste Declaration, that Kamikatsu would start along the path towards zero waste, committing wholly to a radical new way of living.
With the initiative managed by the non-profit organisation the Zero Waste Academy, The Zero Waste Declaration included, at its core, the fundamental agreement that there would no longer be any ‘throwing away’ of litter or waste; instead, quite simply, everything had to be recycled. Some struggled to adapt at first to the often time-consuming nature of ensuring all waste is properly organised, classified and recycled, but soon, with relatively little strife and once the process became habit, the initiative became a roaring success. Key was the instigation of a new, strict classification system, complete with 45 categories of recyclables, from fluorescent lights to metal caps, clothes and spray cans. Trash pick-up doesn’t even happen in Kamikatsu. There is no garbage van service here. Almost everyone has to bring their waste into the waste collection centre, and only about 20 percent ends up in bins.
According to the residents, soon they began to view their waste differently, not only when recycling it, but also when purchasing the products which would become waste. They became more organised and sensible in how they consumed, stored and organised items. Such an approach achieves far more than it might seem; it has the ability, if successfully implemented, to become a philosophy, to change how we approach our daily lives, and to foster a far greater sense of community and collective achievement. The residents of Kamikatsu have built a far deeper understanding of how waste, if recycled properly, can be entirely reutilised; how organic waste, for example, can be repurposed as compost for the local farmers to grow the rice, fruit and vegetables which are served at Kamikatsu’s local restaurant. They truly embraced the cyclical relationship that is central to the concept of recycling, but that is still so foreign to many of us.
Today, Kamikatsu has a recycling rate of above 80%, more than quadruple the average of Japan. The highest average recycling rate for any country in the world is in Germany, where 56.1% of waste is recycled, achieved through decades of successively strict bans on harmful packaging and recycling regulations. Competing countries such as Wales, Switzerland and South Korea are gradually catching up, using varied approaches such as outlawing single-use plastics and making businesses and consumers accountable for their waste not recycled. Nonesuch method has been anywhere near as successful as Kamikatsu’s, however, where a recycling revolution meant that improper disposal of waste, simply, became impossible to most residents. A baptism of fire, perhaps, but few residents are complaining.
Kamikatsu is a small town. Such strategies, for many reasons, can be implemented with success far more easily here than in large towns or cities, yet the tale of Kamikatsu might still serve as an inspiration for all local, regional or national authorities who wish to move further towards creating sustainable urban landscapes. To replicate the success of Kamikatsu, however, each of us might also consider how we can make a difference. The first step, of course, is to avoid littering at all costs, the second step, where possible, is to organise and recycle waste as consistently as you can. If Kamikatsu tells us anything, a real, unwavering commitment to recycling has the ability to change how we interact with our waste, how we approach our daily lives, and, perhaps, to change our mindsets.e approach our daily lives, and, perhaps, to change our mindsets.