A Handy Guide to Separating Trash in Japan
Welcome to DISCOVER DEEP JAPAN’s LIFESTYLE GUIDE! In addition to telling you all about interesting stories, culture, and travel destinations of Japan, we also have created this LIFESTYLE GUIDE as a useful tool to those for whom living here is not just a single trip, but a much longer journey.
Today’s topic concerns something that has at one time or another been the bane of every foreigner’s existence here: trash! Japan has a very unique, particular, and (to many) bewildering way of separating trash. Though it may seem frustrating at first, here is a quick primer to help you get the hang of things, with minimal Japanese required. While the particulars of trash sorting can vary somewhat depending on exactly where in Japan you live, in most cases these basic rules should more than suffice to get your garbage both out the door and out of your life with minimal fuss.
The basics: What, where, and when!
Typically, the place for trash disposal will be right outside your building, or at the end of the street if you live in a residential area with many private houses. As soon as you move in, you will likely spot somewhere outside where a few empty bins appear, and gradually fill up throughout the day.
In Japan, certain trash is picked up only on specific days; you will receive a calendar either in the mail or from your landlord that will advise you when your things should be put out. The timing of when to toss your stuff might matter; I know friends who were scolded by elderly neighbors for bringing out their trash too early. However, it is generally safe to throw your own trash out once you see that your more learned (Japanese) neighbors have already done so. It is common for everyone’s trash to be mixed together these days, but I’ve heard of situations where garbage space was divided by tenant, so that each person’s garbage could be individually inspected by a landlord.
DDJ’s Japanese Trash Guide: The nitty-gritty
In most towns and cities in Japan there will be 2-3 kinds of refuse which will be collected every week, while other types are only collected monthly:
Burnable Trash – Written as 燃えるゴミ(moeru gomi) in Japanese, this will mostly consist of food waste. Other things commonly sorted into moeru gomi are loose papers (paper wrappers, receipts) and items made of rubber or vinyl. While throwing clothing in with burnable trash is technically OK, most municipalities in Japan will allow you to donate your hand-me-downs in some form. Things that should definitely not be put in with burnable trash include items made of glass, spare change, or old batteries. For the most part, you need to put your burnables into specific burnable trash bags for your town or city, which can be easily found in local grocery and convenience stores. Do check that your bag isn’t ripped or leaking; in the event that it is, you will unfortunately need to completely start over with your trash sorting, as double-bagging is not accepted.
Non-Burnable Trash – Written as 燃えないゴミ(moenai gomi). In many areas, moenai gomi is mostly plastics, however exceptions do exist (see Other Plastic Waste, below). Moenai gomi also includes certain metals, like thin wire and aluminum foil. Non-paper wrappers and food trays can also be disposed of, with the caveat that they should be thoroughly cleaned first. Like with the burnable trash, non-burnable bags should be readily available at your local conbini or supermarket.
PET Bottles – There should be a specific day each week when you can recycle all those PET bottles you’ve accumulated. Though it may seem obvious, a bottle that isn’t specifically labeled PET is NOT a PET bottle. A general rule of thumb is to wash them out, and remove the cap and label, which will be discarded with your moenai gomi. As for imported recyclable goods which are numbered, number 1 will designate PET.
Other Plastic Waste – In rare cases, non-burnables and plastic waste are further separated. Items that belong here will have プラwritten somewhere on them. Do not mix your PET and your プラ! In my situation, there was not a specific bag for these plastic items, so any clear plastic shopping bag will do.
Glass Bottles or Jars – Written asびん or 瓶 (bin). As with PET bottles, remove the cap and label (to the best of your ability) and wash out the glass. As a courtesy to the person sorting it, do not break the glass by chucking it in the bin. While throwing out glass items is usually not very complicated, the first place where I lived in Japan actually sorted glass by color. While annoying, knowledge of the kanji for each color was the only additional info I needed in that case. Any glass item which is broken should be considered hazardous waste (see below).
Metal Cans –Written as カン or 缶 (kan). I believe it is common for metal cans to be disposed of the same day as glass. You can generally throw out any non-aerosol metal containers here; in some municipalities it is further divided into aluminum (アルミ) and steel （スチル）cans. In general, aluminum cans are for beverages, while steel cans are normally for tinned food such as canned tuna. If you are not sure, it will usually be written on the label. As always, wash it out, and put the tabs in with non-burnables.
Cardboard –Written as ダンボール(danbooru). Don’t put your cardboard in with your burnables, unless it is a really small piece. Though it may be temping just to cut up and chuck all your cardboard, most areas have a very specific way to recycle it: flatten it out, and cut into uniform pieces, then tie it together with string, such as that which is available at 100 yen shops. You can usually recycle other paper products, like newspapers and magazines, in the same way.
Assorted Hazardous Waste – Things like old batteries, sharp metal, and broken glass should definitely NOT be put together with other trash! The usual procedure is to carefully put it into a generic shopping bag (in the case of glass, double-bagging is preferable), and write危険, the kanji for hazardous, on the outside. Generally, this will not be collected as often as other items, so be careful not to miss your day!
Oversized Trash – What do you do if something won’t fit into your bags? This is called粗大ごみ (sodai gomi) – things like old futons, furniture, and appliances. Unlike other varieties of trash, these could presumably be collected at any time, with the caveat that you have to call in advance, and also pay for it to be hauled away. This payment is in the form of special stickers which have to be bought from your local conbini or town hall. Depending on exactly what you want to dispose of, the process can be quite complicated, and require a knowledge of spoken Japanese. If these items are in working order, it might be advisable to sell or donate them instead.
What if my area doesn’t accept certain trash?
During one of my moves in Japan, I was surprised to learn that my new town actually didn’t collect PET bottles at all! In this case, I was able to bring them to my local supermarket. Occasionally specific materials like cardboard or Styrofoam have to be recycled in this way.
Final thoughts and words of advice
One thing that, as a New Yorker, I noticed right away upon moving to Japan was the lack of public trash bins. How does this country stay so clean? Even public parks in the middle of Tokyo are largely free of soda bottles, food wrappers, and other assorted waste. It so happens that it is a longstanding cultural practice in this country to take your trash with you; so those spare plastic bags you are always told to carry during hikes, picnics, and other outdoor outings won’t go to waste. This is also why I carry a backpack everywhere I go, despite the fact that I graduated school nearly a decade ago! While trash receptacles are generally found in convenience stores, for example, that is only for the food you buy there.
In all cases, it is good practice to ask your building manager or landlord about separating trash whenever you move into a new place. Click HERE for more information about moving in Japan. As foreigners, we are usually the first person that is looked to when something goes awry, so it is important that people know you are making an effort. Good luck!
Another handy English trash sorting guide
Want to learn more about separating trash in Japan? See our video below!