How A Small Japanese Community Embraced Change To Reach Its Zero Waste Goals

​The people of Kamikatsu on the Japanese island of Shikoku have spent 2 decades working towards zero waste and they are almost there!

The catalyst for the change was the introduction of a strict new law in 2000. The law cracked down on harmful chemicals that were emitted from rubbish incinerations, forcing the lush, mountain village of 1500 residents to shut down its two small incinerators.

And so the town had to rethink how it dealt with its waste, and Kamikatsu became the first Japanese town to declare a "zero waste policy". Without the funds to build new incinerators that adhered to the laws or transport waste to out-of-town facilities the answer was to create less waste and recycle as much as possible. The community rallied together, replacing their incinerators and landfill "hole" with an amazing system of reducing, reusing, recycling and composting!

Going zero waste

The Kamikatsu Zero Waste Centre is centralised under one roof, in a unique building that incorporates a recycling centre; reuse/thrift shop; education centre; public hall and hotel. Viewed from the air the recycling centre buildings are in the shape of a giant question mark. The aptly named, "Hotel Why" is in a separate circular building which is the dot under the question mark. The hotel caters for the 2000 visitors who come to the town each year to learn from their zero waste lifestyle. Staying true to the town's philosophy, the building is made from local cedar, discarded furniture, doors, and windows and was constructed with great consideration towards the environment.

The recycling collection centre has 45 categories of segregation (for example, not just one bin for glass but segregated into bins for clear glass bottles; brown bottles and coloured bottles etc). So residents have to sort their waste into 45 categories! You could see how this would be a struggle to enforce in larger towns and cities. To help community members navigate the system, there is a recycling segregation book (including strict guidelines for washing out and removing labels before bringing items to the centre). Thanks to this detailed system, in 2016, Kamikatsu recycled 81% of the waste it produced, compared to a national average of just 20%.

Next to the recycling centre they have a reuse/thrift shop called Kuru Kuru (pictured below), which means circular. People in the town can bring any usable items (like clothes and crockery) they don't want and if they find something they need they can take it home for free. Last year they had around 13 tonnes of items that came into the thrift shop and around 11 tonnes taken away by someone. So, true to its name, it's very circular!

Community power

Before the town embarked on the project they took the time to visit everyone in the community to explain why they were setting it up and how they could achieve it. They got the people who were very passionate about the project to influence the other people in the town who were sceptical. The waste collection centre here, which normally would be considered "not nice" or "dirty", has become a place where people (particularly older residents) like to gather for a chat as they sort their recycling. So alongside reducing waste, air pollution and their carbon footprint, Kamikatsu has built a community hub.

The importance of systems change

Kamikatsu aimed to be zero waste by 2020 but they haven't quite got there because of restrictions out of their control. Akira Sakano, the head of Kamikatsu's nonprofit Zero Waste Academy, formed in 2005 told the Guardian "Our goal was to achieve zero waste by 2020, but we have encountered obstacles that involve stakeholders and regulations outside of our scope," said Sakano . "And certain products are designed for single use, such as sanitary products, which are difficult to segregate because of the nature of the waste product."

As in any community you can only go so far until you hit a wall because systems need to change, policies need to change. In a short video (below) on Kamikatsu, Sakano explained, "because some materials are not recyclable, things need to be changed from a production side, so we are now facing a limitation of what can be achieved by a community only. The rest needs to be changed by a systemic change."

Sakano sums it up. "This community project showcases what is possible as one community to achieve. We also showcased what is the limitation." That's why it's so important to lobby the policymakers for better controls around design, production and manufacturing.

In the meantime residents of Kamikatsu are encouraged not to buy single-use products, through a scheme that rewards them with points whenever they refuse such items. They can use these points to buy other items. Hopefully, the waste warriors of Kamikatsu will achieve their dream of a 100% zero waste town in the near future. And towns and cities around the world will learn from their persistence, unity and ingenuity.

By Allison Licence

Allison Licence is a Sydney-based freelance writer and 1 Million Women volunteer who is passionate about the environment and finding ways to live more sustainably.

Header photo: Yuki Shimazu from Tokyo, Japan / CC BY-SA (

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