Talking Tsurashi

Anyone who's visited Japan might think it's worlds apart from the United States. After all, the country is thousands of miles across the ocean, it's difficult to read the language and people there serve strange foods like purple sweet potato ice cream. But no matter where you go, “garubaji” is still garbage — even if it sounds a little different.

According to a report recently released by the Ministry of the Environment, the Japanese version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, its residents are generating record-levels of trash. In fiscal 2000, Japanese households and businesses produced 52.36 million tons of waste, up 1.77 percent from the previous year. This amounts to 1.132 kilograms (or roughly 2.5 pounds) per person per day.

By contrast, Americans generated a record-high of 231.9 million tons of solid waste in 2000, an increase of 0.3 percent from 1999 levels. And the per person figure was tallied at 4.5 pounds per day.

Because Japan's per person figures are on par with what we were producing per person in 1960, the numbers may seem like no big deal. Yet having less waste to worry about does not mean that the garbage issues are different.

For example, increasing levels of Japanese trash production have been “supported by a system of mass production [and] mass consumption,” the Ministry says. The United States, too, has benefitted from a strong economy in the past. Increasing garbage generation rates also often are attributed to Americans' affinity for convenience and disposable items, which of course are accompanied by lots of packaging.

Other Japanese trends include a proliferation of illegal dumping, and the Ministry says authorities have had to “crack down” on entrepreneurs secretly shipping toxic waste overseas. And just like American automakers, Japanese truck manufacturers are struggling to meet stringent tailpipe regulations that are designed to reduce particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.

Disposal sites are especially scarce in the densely populated country. So to save landfill space and the environment, the Land of the Rising Sun is aiming to boost recycling efforts. The problem is Japan already boasts high recycling rates. By 1996, the rates were 51.6 percent for paper, 77.3 percent for steel cans and 70.2 percent for aluminum.

The Japanese often seem to quickly follow American fads. But with uncannily familiar garbage problems on the horizon, a McDonald's on almost every corner in Tokyo, and nearly the same number of lawyers per capita as there are in the United States, the country might want to think twice before following our lead in talking tsurashi.

The author is the editor of Waste Age