Question the Premise

February 4, 2024 • Louie Mantia

One side-effect I’ve noticed from moving to another country is that I see different solutions to common problems. The one I keep thinking about is trash.

In the States, I was accustomed to a few things:

I never gave any of this process much thought. If asked, I would have assumed this is (generally) how it works in other parts of the world too.

However, it would seem none of these are true in Japan.

When I visited Japan before I moved here, I noticed there weren’t any trash cans on the street like I expected. If you’ve ever seen an overflowing trash can on an American city sidewalk thereby creating an embarrassingly dirty environment for everyone, you can imagine my surprise that this never happens in Japan simply because public trash cans don’t exist.*

* Mostly. Public trash cans do exist, but not where you might expect them to be if you’re coming from the States.

In Japan, there’s a truly incredible culture of convenience stores and vending machines that Americans could only dream of. Adjacent to (and sometimes built into) vending machines are recycle bins. At the front of convenience stores are bins for trash. (Trash cans and recycle bins also likely exist at train stations and public parks.)

What initially confused me was how I would dispose of a can or bottle once I started walking around with it. But now that I live here, I totally get it. People don’t usually do that. In the States, bottled and canned drinks are big enough that you kinda hold onto it for a little while. But here, bottles and cans are significantly smaller, and can often be finished in 2 minutes. This makes even more sense when considering that trains in Tokyo arrive on average every 3 minutes. If you miss a train, you grab a drink from the vending machine, toss the bottle, and board the next train.

Within my first week of living in Japan, I had to learn about trash collection. I didn’t have a trash can to put out at the curb, but I also couldn’t imagine a trash truck rolling down my narrow street, nor did I understand where I would put my outdoor trash can. But as it turns out, none of this was relevant.

In Taito-ku, where I live, they pick up “burnable” trash twice a week, “unburnable” trash once every two weeks, and all forms of recycling (boxes, cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles) once a week.

For burnable and unburnable trash, you simply put out your bag on the curb in the morning. Trash trucks (that are smaller than ones I’m used to in the States) deploy people to go down each street, grabbing every bag and making one big pile at the end of the street, when the truck loops back around to pick up the staff and the trash. No trash cans required.

For recyclables, you bundle up any cardboard, and take it along with your bottles and cans and empty them into collapsible bins that are located on every block. They’re not yours. They belong to the community. Recycling trucks for each category pick up their respective material. The crates are flattened and stacked until next week.

Honorable mention: commercial glass bottles (in contrast to household glass bottles) are seemingly picked up along with kegs, and the inside of those trucks could not be cuter.

Maybe none of this is interesting to you, but it gives me some fresh perspective. The other day, I saw a video of a huge, “new” New York City trash truck that picks up a dumpster from the side with some pincers and raises it, dumping it into the top of the truck.

Here’s a demo of New York City’s new automatic side loading garbage truck lifting large on street containers. A pilot program is expanding to all of Community Board District 9 in West Harlem.

— Emma G. Fitzsimmons (@emmagf) February 2, 2024

Doesn’t seem new, does it? Yet, here they are so proud of it, blaring Empire State of Mind as they introduce it.

After I saw this, I finally understood how people living elsewhere in the world often feel when they see America do anything. I shook my head, and thought, “Why?”

As a designer, I have a curse that has me always thinking about how I would solve problems I see, mostly small, insignificant ones like the direction a door swings. (Of course, in Japan, most doors slide.)

Sometimes Japan teaches me that you can solve a problem by questioning the premise: Do we need trash cans at all?

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