Around the time that I got wind of my acceptance into the JET program was when I also first stumbled upon a blog called “The Zero Waste Home,” written by a California mother named Bea Johnson, whose family had collectively decided that they had trashed the world enough. Their level of conservativeness is what some would call extreme, and what others would consider bordering on cruelty: training their young sons to urinate on the lemon trees because they thrive in acidic soil, shopping for non-synthetic clothing solely at thrift shops, pre-loading the meat counter scales with glass jars so as to avoid the unrecyclable waxed deli paper. But for me and many others, it was a source of inspiration—a family of four that created less than 250 grams of unrecyclable trash per year, an amount that they could inventory with ease, and in a way that they considered not just attainable, but comfortable.
I read the blog steadfastly and treated my JET appointment as a fresh start. My guilt over my contribution to the dire status of the environment was beginning to crush me, so since I would be rebuilding my home base from scratch anyway, I planned to create a system where I’d bring home no plastic wrappers, waste less electricity, and make whatever I could to avoid unnecessary products. My partner and I dreamed of coming, learning new crafts from Japanese masters, saving tons of money, and then coming home and establishing a farm where we could live our lives self-sufficiently.
Then I arrived in my placement city and went to a grocery store. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears when I saw the amount of plastic and styrofoam that cloaked every piece of food, and that nothing being sold by weight meant buying far more of that cloaking than necessary. The first freezing winter and the thin blood I’ve developed from my Hawaiian upbringing left me with no choice but to combat the complete lack of insulation in my apartment by blasting multiple heaters at all times. The language barrier prevented us from finding certain necessary ingredients for reproducing Bea’s recipes for replacing household goods, nor could I find any masters to teach me the crafts I was desperate to learn. As we spent more than we ever expected in that first year, the dream of the farm has been pushed further and further into the future.
But, I’ve certainly discovered a lot in terms of feasible compromises. There is way more plastic than I’d like in our apartment, but you wouldn’t notice it unless you spent some time looking. We only throw out garbage for burning once a month, and I give credit to Bea for this; the three Rs of ecofriendliness we are familiar with (reduce, reuse, recycle) become five through her (refuse, rot), and I’d like to add a sixth especially for us in Japan(reorganize). In this inaugural column, allow me to present six ways that you can start creating less waste immediately.
1. Refuse. You do not need plastic register bags. Ever. Get a couple of compact eco-bags and memorize this phrase: 袋は要らないです。Fukuro wa iranai desu. “I don’t need a bag.” Most cashiers will thank you when you say this. And emptying that drawer where you shove all those plastic register bags for “future use” (even though you always have more than you ever need) will be your instant reward.
2. Reduce. Buy in larger quantities whenever doing so is an option. Make the occasional trip to Costco or order from theflyingpig.com to buy non-perishables in bulk and avoid the need for piles of single-serve packaging. For fresh stuff, seek out local farmer’s markets to cut the carbon footprint of your food (I’ll cover some of these in future columns). Make smart choices at the store to avoid unnecessary packaging. Which piece of fruit looks more edible, anyway: that beautiful, naked Fuji apple, or the peach you wouldn’t know was pink because it’s covered in Styrofoam netting and nestled in a plastic tray? Hmmmmm, decisions.
3. Reuse. When you have a choice, purchase something that comes in a container you can foresee repurposing for something else. I keep my laundry detergent in a champagne bottle and my beans and grains in glass pasta sauce jars. Really classes up the joint. In future columns, I’ll show you other creative ways to reuse things that would otherwise end up in the garbage.
4. Recycle. Probably the easiest and most supported of the six Rs in Japan. Your town most likely has an intricate schedule for disposing your recyclables, and I urge you not to be lazy and throw stuff in the burn pile. Neither of us want to breathe burning plastic, right? But see #6 for the easiest way to make this a saner process.
5. Rot. While compost doesn’t seem like a feasible option in our typically tiny Japanese apartments, there is a fantastic, and simple, option for doing so: bokashi. You can research it now, but feel free to be lazy since I’ll cover it in an upcoming issue.
6. Reorganize. Sorting the recycling is second only to folding laundry on the list of chores I want to do the least. But, by keeping our recyclables in labeled drawers according to disposal day, I have no problem getting
them out on time when I’m groggily beginning my commute to work. The drawers stay in a closet out of sight, and thus being a responsible recycler isn’t a role that conquers myliving space. Eight overflowing garbage cans in my kitchen would not be an option.
Keep your eyes peeled for more sustainability tips catered specifically to us in Hyogo. Not only do I plan to cover more to file under the six Rs, but I’ll share recipes for household products and basic foodstuffs to help you reduce packaging and keep control over what you put on and in your body. We use a lot of hippie words these days: eco-friendly, green, sustainable, organic… all with their roots in the earth. But the Japanese word for natural—tennen, begins with the kanji for “the heavens.” Perhaps at this point in humanity, living in a way that is absolutely friendly to the earth is a “pie in the sky” dream; something that would take drastic sacrifices to reach. But every small sacrifice, every forgoing of convenience and head turned away from attractive marketing for the sake of a more beautiful end, brings you closer to the pie, and is really only a sacrifice at first. I can finally say that my home in Japan is a stepping stone towards the one I hope to have upon my return to permanence. It is a source of sanity and no longer of frustration. I hope you too discover new ways to keep eco-minded in Japan. If you do, share them!