Life in a Zero Waste City – Interview with Akira Sakano

May 4, 2016

Kamikatsu, a Japanese village has broke the internet with its noble intentions to create the first zero waste city in the world by 2020. Actually, the town is very successful; as of the beginning of 2015, it has achieved a recycling rate of almost 80%.

We managed to engage Akira Sakano, the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Zero Waste Academy in an interview to tell us more about the zero waste initiative. Pawel Nazaruk, the founder of Better World International asked her how cities and people can reduce their waste production and live waste-free lives.

You can also listen to the podcast version here.

Kamikatsu - zero waste city



Pawel: Starting from the beginning: how did you get involved in the Zero Waste project? What made you join the initiative?

Akira: It all started in university, when I met a girl from AIESEC, we were both really passionate about environmental issues. She told me that she was from Kamikatsu that started a zero waste project and I got curious. I visited the town and I was shocked how devoted people were to contribute personally to the zero waste city. I haven’t seen such a deep layer of people who were working towards a common goal.  I was working in the Philippines for some time, and right after I decided to move back to Japan in 2014, the Zero Waste Academy launched a new project that I finally joined.

“I haven’t seen such a deep layer of people who were working towards a common goal.”

What were the reasons why Kamikatsu started this project? What made them change to a zero waste operation?

In rural areas in Japan we had a lot of incinerators, but after plastics and other materials entered the economy, it became a huge issue, because these machines were emitting lots of dioxins. Later the national government banned open incineration, so the town office of Kamikatsu had to think out of the box how to eliminate waste. They managed to came up with the zero waste concept to deal with the problem by reducing, reusing and recycling the waste. At the same time there was a change in the citizens’ mindset not to pollute our nature too – all the grannies, mothers stood up fighting against the incineration.

So it came from the government’s and the people’s side as well… You mentioned reducing, reusing and recycling the products. Can you tell us some more details on how Kamikatsu is managing its waste?

Yes, we have these 3 R’s. Reducing is the first priority so that people consume consciously, then it’s important to reuse our things before putting additional energy into recycling the products. Recycling should only come in when you can’t reuse the products anymore.

If I know well, you have 34 categories in Kamikatsu, right?

Exactly. We have 34 categories that cover everything from aluminium cans to mirrors, plastic bottles, chopsticks, carpets and clothes.

What happens to these materials? As I understood, they can’t be burned anymore.

It depends on the materials. For example, metal cans are great because once you turn them into another product it can be reused or recycled into the same quality level. Glasses and ceramics on the other hand get crushed and down-cycled, so they’re going to be used for construction materials that cover the road for instance.

So you actually recycle every materials in the town? What about the batteries? They are said to be dangerous for the environment.

That’s right, batteries are hazardous waste, and it costs a lot to recycle them as well – it’s one of the most expensive recycling materials. When we want to process them, we basically open them up, separate the different materials, take the chemicals out, and only use the parts that can be recycled – such as metals.  This is why we recommend people to buy rechargeable batteries instead of disposable ones, and reuse them as much as possible.

It makes a lot of sense…  I’ve read that you have a center where you deal with the clothes, called Kurukuru?

Yes, we actually have a Kurukuru shop and a Kurukuru craft center. In the craft center we up-cycle the clothes into new products. We are really dependent on the grannies, because they help us figure out what kind of new things we can turn the clothes into; bags, aprons, etc. In the Kurukuru shop people can basically bring whatever they won’t use anymore and anyone can take those things for “free”.

Is there a rule that they need to exchange the products or they can take anything they like?

We only have one rule: we have to note down the items, dates and weights of the things we brought or took. In general everything in the shop is measured by weight that’s how we calculate the waste in a month to know how much we prevent from putting in the trash. For example in 2014 we had 10 tonnes brought into the Kurukuru shop and 9 tonnes were taken away.

Wow, it’s 90%, that’s impressive… Although Kamikatsu is a small town, it could create magics with the right attitude of people and the government. What do you think, how could we personally influence local governments to start zero waste communities?

First of all, as a citizen you can always advocate by yourself, with your neighbours and friends. I believe the first step to reach out to governments is to have a deep understanding of your own industry. For example, if you have some production in your region that are able to use the recycled materials, you can definitely tie it together. As recycling is just an additional cost for the government you can reason that with these materials you can also support the local economy. You also need them to declare the zero waste as a goal, so they can be accounted for it – and people will follow it.

“The first step to reach out to governments is to have a deep understanding of your own industry.”

We have already talked about how communities can act, but we are also interested what people could do today to go into the direction of a zero waste home.

I think the very first step is to analyze and know your waste. By looking at your waste and categorizing or segregating it you will understand your lifestyle; your buying habits, your consumption, your waste production, etc. After this point you can rethink what are the things you don’t need to buy or change them to another product that creates less waste.

I believe it is an issue that people are not responsible for their own waste. When you put your garbage out to be collected then you don’t know what you’ve produced anymore. That’s why the second step is to learn more about the waste you produce – where it goes, how it will be treated, what it will be. Of course, the waste collection is the responsibility of the local government but you are also paying taxes for it. Citizens need to be very conscious about what they consume because they can actually influence the companies’ production. For example, if large groups choose to buy recyclable products, companies will go in that direction to satisfy their needs.

“Citizens need to be very conscious about what they consume because they can actually influence the companies’ production.”

Akira, what would you recommend our readers, what are the best ways to reduce our waste?

I think you just have to pick even one thing that you’re going to bring around with you. Bring your own bag, your own tray, your own containers and just don’t get the additional packaging. You should also choose the shops or the products that have offer less plastic packaging.

The second thing would be not to buy additional things that you don’t need, for example fast fashion products. I’m not saying I’m against them, but they are coming out with new and new products every season, which you cannot use for a lifetime – so they go wasted. You can always join these reusing systems, like the Kurukuru shop we have in Kamikatsu. I have a lot of clothes from the shop as well, and last time I brought in 1kg of clothing.

We should buy recycled products as well?

Yes, but I would rather say people should buy recyclable or reusable products, because the more you recycle the lower the quality of the products goes every time. Of course, it’s a good thing to buy recycled products, but we should pay attention to purchase those things that can be recycled to the same quality level.

Can you imagine the future without plastic? Do you think it’s possible?

I believe that it’s possible because we have other alternatives. Some companies has already started producing biodegradable plastic. This means that after using the plastic objects, you can compost it and then the normal organic waste can turned back into the soil. For example, recently I’ve seen a video that an Indian company produced edible cutlery.

Believe it or not, I’ve already seen this in a restaurant lately! They had a plate that you could eat, it was an amazing experience for me… 

Do you have any last thoughts on the zero waste lifestyle you would like to share with us?

Just don’t buy plastic packaging any more. 🙂

About Akira

Akira Sakano is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Zero Waste Academy, and the Co-founder & Communication Director RDND LLC. that deals with the zero-waste policy implementation design. She studied Environmental Policy & Law at Kwansei Gakuin University, was an active member of AIESEC, and is a current member of the Global Shapers Community.


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