Gomi (Garbage): Paralyzed by the Options

“This is one of the most difficult parts of living in Japan,” mutters a Japanese executive newly returned from expat life in the States. He scrunches a foil chocolate wrapper between thumb and forefinger, and his hand hovers over the motley array of pink and gray plastic trash cans. Finally, he grunts and tosses the wrapper into one of them, clearly still unsure, but not caring anymore. I’m glad I’m not the only who can’t get the hang of the garbage.

This exec worked in our Silicon Valley office till last month, where twice a day a plump, smiling janitor in jeans and polo shirt rolls two large cans through—1) trash and 2) recycling, dumping enormous piles into them, saying hi to everyone. From here, it seems obscene to live so carelessly.

Recycle Cans

Recycle Options for One Vending Machine

So many things are parsed into finer granularity here than they are in the U.S., and garbage is no exception. In the coffee corner of our office, there are at least six garbage cans of varying sizes, plus a little can on the counter for used tea bags, so the regular garbage won’t get wet. Cans, “PET” plastic drink bottles, clean plastics, dirty plastics, paper cups, drink boxes, newspapers and magazines, non-shredding office paper, office paper to be shredded, cloth, food, metal, and wood all have separate places, some more clearly marked than others. Pages of garbage-related instructions, announcements, and warnings are tacked to the walls over the cans.

At the hotel, you can nonchalantly throw anything in any can in your room, but that means someone else will sort it. In residential areas, your neighbors are watching. In public areas, it’s hard to find trash cans that don’t look like they’re for very specific purposes. For instance, a recycling can is clearly designated for one sidewalk vending machine, owned and managed by a nice elderly lady who will emerge to smile and bow fiercely at you if you dare to use it for some other purpose.

I dread throwing anything away. Sometimes I carry around little bags of embarrassing trash for days till I can find a big (well, bigger) anonymous trash can in a train station somewhere. Clearly, I’m not the only one. Those hard-to-find gems are always filled to the gills.

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About July McAtee

American gal turned Japanese "salaryman" for a while. I'm blogging my experiences as my daughter and I move from Silicon Valley to Japan and beyond.
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