• Waste management in Japan
  • Circular economy in Japan
  • Waste management in Asia
  • Disaster waste management
*The following is an English translation of the introductory part of feature article series, “Prospects of Japan’s Waste Management and Material Cycles in the Reiwa Era” that were published over a period from June 2019 to March 2020 in the Division’s online magazine (see the original text in Japanese).

Prospects of Japan’s Waste Management and Material Cycles in the Reiwa Era (1): Looking Back on the Showa Era and Heisei Era

June 2019 issue
Tomohiro TASAKI


Japan entered a new imperial era, “Reiwa,” on May 1, 2019. This transition offers a good opportunity to reflect on Japan’s waste management and material cycles (or 3Rs, namely reducing, reusing and recycling waste) in the past Showa era (1926-1989) and Heisei era (1989-2019) and prospects in the new Reiwa era. In this article series, I will share my thoughts on how the current waste management and material cycles in Japan will evolve in the new era. I hope that this article will help general readers, practitioners and researchers in Japan as well as other countries to deepen understanding of major long-term trends in this field based on Japan’s experiences.

To start with, I will trace the evolution of waste management and material cycles in the Showa and Heisei eras in Japan, and explain them from three viewpoints, namely materials, methods, and roles.

Waste management and material cycles in the Showa era

The main characteristic of Japan’s waste management in the Showa era (1926-1989, including the period of industrialization) was that it was driven by rapidly increasing waste management needs. In particular, waste management system that can treat a massive amount of waste had to be developed due to concentration of population into cities and rapid economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since materials were scarce in Japan in the prewar and postwar periods, any usable wastes were collected to reuse. Whether it was a glass bottle or steel scrap, any reusable materials were considered as valuables more than today. At that time, any unusable items left after the collection of usable materials were regarded as “waste.” Waste management of that time focused on “cleaning,” or how to remove unnecessary items from the site. Quick waste collection was considered particularly important. The management focus was placed mainly on the waste that could create unhygienic conditions if it is not properly treated. It included kitchen waste that decomposes and causes bad odors and pests, and human excreta that contains germs and pathogens. As spread of diseases would be troublesome for the society, the basic principle that guided waste management in the Showa era in Japan was “government’s responsibility,” that is, the idea that municipalities are responsible for collecting and disposing of garbage. This principle was stated for the first time in the Waste Cleaning Act of 1900 for household waste. In Japan, incineration was widely adopted in the Showa era because it was difficult to find suitable landfill sites in Japan, a small island country, where usable land area was very limited. Incineration of waste had advantages of both ensuring hygienic conditions and reducing landfilled amount by converting waste to ash (see the January 2016 issue on the history of incineration facilities in Japan[in Japanese]).

When Japan’s high economic growth period started, industrial facilities began to discharge a huge amount of waste. In addition to the amount, since a large part of the waste from these facilities had properties that significantly differed from those of household waste, municipalities had difficulties in treating and disposing of it. Moreover, there was no legal provision as to who was responsible for treating and disposing of industrial wastes. It took more than a decade until the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act in 1970 defined industrial waste and established a concept that the responsibility of waste treatment is placed on those who discharge it. The principle came to be known as the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) in other countries later, not only for waste but also other environmental emissions. Removing waste from living and working environment was no longer enough in the era. Those responsible for waste management were called upon to find ways to properly treat and dispose of the collected waste and to construct sufficient facilities. An increase in waste containing hazardous substances boosted this new demand. In addition, as Japan’s economy grew, economic value of materials declined in relative terms. Recyclables that had been collected before were disposed of, and recyclers were no longer able to continue their business solely by collecting recyclables. Thus, we can say that the second half of the Showa era was characterized by transition to a mass-disposal society.

Waste management and material cycles in the Heisei era

With the arrival of the Heisei era, the focus of Japan’s waste management immediately changed in response to the emergence of a mass-disposal society. The waste management in the Heisei era (1989-2019) was characterized by transition to a sound material-cycle society (or circular society). The first move to this direction occurred in 1991 when the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act was revised to reduce waste generation and to promote recycling. People realized that there was a limit to responding to the problem of the massive amount of waste only by their mass-disposal. In and after the 1990s, recycling acts targeting specific wastes were enforced. They included the Containers and Packaging Recycling Act and the Home Appliance Recycling Act. These acts made producers responsible for the disposal and recycling of their product waste. This principle, called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), spread not only in Japan but also across the world in and after the 90s. At the same time, on the side of private enterprises, their voluntary initiatives made solid progress. Moreover, Japan promoted material cycles not only for reducing massive wastes that go to intermediate treatment and landfilling but also for promoting their recycling in view of their usefulness as resources (e.g., the Small Home Appliance Recycling Act of 2012 targeting small amounts of scarce metals).

In the Heisei era, in parallel to this movement of material cycles, regulations continued to be strengthened for proper waste management in Japan. For example, Japanese government targeted illegal dumping of waste and environmental remediation of dumping sites, dioxins contained in exhaust gas from waste incinerators, and hazardous substances contained in waste landfill leachate. Among them, what deserved particular attention in the Heisei era was that the issue of inappropriate waste management was globalized. In the 2000s, a massive amount of recyclable waste started to move across national borders. This transboundary movement of waste started to cause environmental pollutions and health problems in developing countries. Consequently, controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and securing proper waste management in destination countries became international issues.

Another important feature of the Heisei era was that waste management in emergency situations was recognized as an important issue, in addition to that in normal situations. This recognition became apparent after recent natural disasters such as earthquakes and extreme weather events. A strong need arose for proper management of disaster waste after these events. Proper response was also needed when radioactive waste was generated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. After these events, more resilient and robust waste management systems have been called for.

(To continue reading this story, please see my articles “Prospects of Japan’s Waste Management and Material Cycles in the Reiwa Era” (2) to (6) [in Japanese].)