The thought doesn’t count

It’s fair to say that Japan is fanatical about garbage.  In Tokyo, 5 out of 7 days are garbage collection days.  Two days a week are for burnable garbage.  One day a week is for recyclables, and each type (glass, plastic etc) must be strictly sorted into separate plastic crates.  One day every two weeks is for items made out of steel and other metals (except aluminum, because that’s tossed on recycling day).  The other day (on weeks alternating from the steel week, but on a different day) is for light bulbs and non-metallic objects which can’t be burned.   Whew.

Rather than big plastic wheelie bins or metal trash cans, rubbish is placed in plastic bags and literally heaped on the footpath.  They are veritable mountains of refuse – walking to the train on a garbage day, the bigger piles reach head height.  The crows near my place used to have a field day on these days until the council made netting mandatory.

When the garbage truck comes, there’s not a robotic arms to be seen (unexpectedly, Australia is ahead of Japan when it comes to robotic garbage collection).  The garbage is collected by a couple of guys who grab the hundreds of bags piled outside each building.  They apparently have some kind of supernatural ability to detect non-conforming refuse.  On multiple occasions, they’ve been able to detect a single morsel of food clinging to a piece of recyclable plastic inside a single bag, at which point they slap a big, obvious, red “REJECTED” sticker on the suspect bag and will refuse to take it.

Although the bags of garbage have no identifying names on them (a rule enforced by some buildings), my landlord always knows who the troublemaker is.  Me.  It’s always me.  The rules for garbage sorting are quite complex (there are flowcharts and sub-flowcharts involved, which are naturally in Japanese), and it took me some embarrassing months to work out the more subtle rules.  For instance, if you have a yogurt container, the foil lid must be washed, separated from the plastic body and disposed of on different days.  More confusingly, the body of a tuna can is made of aluminium, but the lid is made of steel, so they, too must be washed and disposed of on different days, although they’re both made of metal.

My landlord seemed to think it was kind of amusing the first couple of times I got rejection stickers.  “Ha ha, that crazy foreign guy!”, he’d think.  Then the joke seemed to get old very quickly for him, and he started getting quite cranky.  I recall lots of eye rolling.  I wanted to say “No, no, don’t you understand?  Where I come from, we have robot trucks and the recyclables are sorted using dark magic.  These archaic methods are unnecessary!  Can’t you accept that you, and your entire system, are inferior?”.  Instead, I just politely thanked him, shut my apartment door, then randomly redistributed the garbage into different groups in new plastic bags, and hope I’d hit the secret winning combination the next week.

Anyway, given this background of fanatical garbage separation, I was most amused to see this bin carefully labeled “Combustibles” and “Non-combustibles” on the front.  Perhaps you can see the same problem I did.


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