How learning how to take out the trash made me a greener person

When starting out in a new country, there is a giant list of challenges that most people expect to face; for example, many people know that there will be a language barrier and differences in work culture and often do things to prepare for those difficulties.  But people rarely consider the day-to-day differences that pop up between countries.  My biggest unexpected challenge when I landed in Japan six years ago was learning how to separate my trash properly.  This one seemingly simple task took me more than half a year to master!  In this post, I will tell you what I learned from separating my trash in Japan.

My un-separating start

For those of you reading from the US that think the US is a very green country….well, I am sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree.  In my area (Iowa), recycling was voluntary, with no real motivation to recycle anything (except for pop cans because you got your deposit back), so many people I knew never bothered with recycling.  Our family was one of the few in the rural area that we lived in that did recycle; however we put all the different types of recyclable items in one big bin all together.  

The Troublesome Trash Bags

When I finally moved into my first apartment in Japan, I was the only foreigner in my building (and about 25% of the entire foreigner population in my town too!).  In my move-in package, there were two plastic trash bags: a clear one with a red outline that had some pictures of different types of plastics and glass on it, and a obnoxiously yellow bag with lots of text but no pictures.  I understood: red for recyclables and yellow for everything else.  I got this!

My Many Mistakes

Turns out, I did not in any way have this.  The first time I got my trash returned to me (because obviously as the only foreigner in the whole building, it must have been my incorrectly separated trash), it was because I had put all of the things in the pictures into the same red bag.  It took multiple tries (with plastic trash only being allowed out once every two weeks for a total of about three months’ worth of tries) before I figured out that every single pictured item type needed to be in its own separate red bag.  Overkill? Yes.  Did I still do it? Darn right I did!

How many different bags does the bottle need to be put into? How about the tissue box? Take a guess! Answers in the picture below the next paragraph

The Easy Way Out

Right around the time that I finally figured out how to separate all of my trash into the correct and separate bags, I met one of the other foreigners that also lived in this town.  He had been living in Japan for 18 months by that point, and when I told him about my difficulties and final success with the trash, he responded by telling me that he never separated the recyclables and instead just threw everything into the yellow bag (which was opaque).  I remember being really upset by this and thinking ‘Why would anyone not want to help the environment when there is a very clear opportunity here?’  It was because of this moment that I realized that I needed and wanted to do more to help.

If you guessed three bags, you were correct! That’s right, the label, bottle, and cap all need to be in separate red bags.
This one is separated into two bags. The tissue box needs to be broken down and the box is put in one bag and the plastic part is removed and put in with the bottle labels.

Which type of expat are you??

Typically, there are two types of expats in any new country: the expats that (attempt to) follow all of the recycling and green rules in their host country which therefore makes them superior to other expats and other expats. Of course that is sarcasm; however it is my hope that this post encourages you to follow the sometimes tedious rules about waste removal in your host country as they can make you more conscious about the quantity and types of waste that you produce.

Have you ever experienced difficulties with your trash in your host country? Please comment below with what happened!  I’d love to hear from you!




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