Too Much Trash

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Among the long list of problems we have in Japan, we have a homeless problem; we have a trash problem; and, compounding it all and making it much worse for everyone, we most certainly have a “governmental” problem.

In Japan, we have too much trash. In Japan, we have too much government. Don’t even get me started on the last part!

I cannot believe how inept some of those people can be — the homeless, I mean, not the government. I can believe any stupid thing the government does. Those people never cease to amaze me as to just how totally useless they can be. On the other hand, some efforts by some homeless people can be mighty impressive in comparison. (By the way, please note that “impressive” and “government” are two words rarely seen in the same sentence.)

Anyway, the other day, my wife and I were driving my six-year-old son to school. We always drive along while listening to audio books like Cricket in Times Square, Harry Potter or Narnia on the CD player. While my son is still little, I want to spend time with him, so I drive whenever my schedule permits. I find the morning drives very refreshing and positive.

It was trash day that particular day and so the roads were lined with trash bags awaiting their morning pick up. We stopped at a red light and I looked over to my left. There I saw something that just about ruined my day. There was this homeless guy with a bicycle loaded up with a mountain of empty trashcans. This guy had been digging through a trash pile a moment before but was now being hassled by two old government workers. The homeless guy looked like your typical un-showered and disheveled Tokyo homeless. The government workers are always easily recognizable from a distance; they are usually old retired guys, there are always at least two of them, and they wear green uniforms.

I thought it ironic that the two old retired guys, in the service of the government, wasting my tax money, disturbing the pleasant view of my early morning drive, would be hassling an old homeless guy who wasn’t bothering anyone as far as I could see.

I complained to my better half (as I always do whenever I see a policeman or government worker), “Why don’t these people get a job?”

My wife glanced at the row going on over the trash, “Who? You mean the homeless?”

“No! I mean those other two losers. Why don’t they go out and get a real job!”

My wife goes silent. She knows better than to say anymore at this point as she knows what will happen if she gets me started on this subject. So, don’t even get me started on this!

The current problem, as the local government has described (made excuses for) to Japanese people, like my wife, who have then explained it to me is, “…the homeless people are messing up the public trash, not cleaning up after themselves, and invading people’s private property, so it has now become a crisis so we have to protect the public and stop them.”

Is that hilarious or what? The government people complain about the homeless invading people’s private property, by digging through their trash, and not cleaning up after themselves? Look who’s talking! They claim they have to protect the public from the homeless? They call that a crisis?

So, let me translate this for you. I have already told you we have a problem with the government. So, don’t even get me started on that. That is pretty much straightforward. We also have a problem in Tokyo with homeless people digging through our daily trash to find the diamonds, rubies, crystal chandeliers, gold bars and nuggets, pieces o’ eight, silver chalets and empty aluminum cans (not to mention Top Secret documents) that we all throw away on a regular basis. (You and I wink and nudge each other knowingly.) These criminal homeless elements then take our precious trash and turn it in for riches beyond their wildest imaginations


The trash pile near my house

Well, maybe not quite that much. But they can turn in a few cans and get a penny or so for their efforts.

The official version of the problem with the homeless people digging through our trash is that after pulling out the empty cans, the homeless don’t clean up after themselves and they leave a mess…This, according to our friendly bureaucrats, makes the locals unhappy. It makes the locals unhappy because it causes them to have to go out and sweep up in front of their houses and shops after the trash man comes and goes. Like they do anyway.

This a true story about how the Tokyo Metropolitan government — as well as my local Setagaya government (Setagaya is a ward of Tokyo) — has hilariously messed up the handling of the trash situation even more than you can imagine. This case stands as a shining example, a case study, to all people, the world over, of the brilliance of the people who reign over us.

But first, let me give you some history, some background to this rubbish.

Besides Tokyo being a very clean city; Tokyo is a very crowded place. What to do with all the trash that such a crowded city produces has been a problem for decades, if not a hundred years. They’ve dug holes and dumped the trash in them; they’ve used trash to fill in the seas to reclaim vast areas with landfills taken from the Pacific Ocean; they’ve even built huge multi-million dollar, obsolete, incinerators.

They’ve tried everything, yet, with this crisis, the trash continues to grow. I mean, the refuse that people dispose of, not the government… Well, they’ve both grown… But in this example, I mean to say, that because of so many people, the trash problem continues unabated… Just like the government problem…

Oh never mind. I hope you understand that what I mean to say is that we have a problem. Government or trash, which is worse? You decide.

Sometime around 1985, the little Einstein’s who run the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced that, as official policy, they had decided that they would no longer pick up any trash unless it was in a government-approved trash bag, readily recognized by markings on the bag and sold at stores. Of course this caused uproar. People were angry that they needed the government-approved trash bag as, of course, the trash bags cost money. Whereas before people were throwing away their trash using used vinyl bags they had received from the grocery stores, they now had to buy the government-stamped and -approved bags from the local market. This increased the numbers of bags in the trash as people still threw away the used vinyl bags from the store, but now they put them inside of the government-approved bags.

When people started complaining, the government claimed that the new trash bags would help cut down on garbage. Hilarious! These people can actually say this sort of thing with a straight face too.

Now think about that for a minute. How is it possible that having an extra bag to throw our trash into would cut down on the amount of trash we produce? Good question, right? I mean we’ve increased the number of trash bags.


Government approved trash bags

At that time, beside my regular job, I was a part-time reporter for some dumpy Tokyo free paper and I “smelled” a story in this trash business so I decided to investigate. I went to the local ward office and started asking “investigative journalistic” type of questions. When I inquired to the lady at the local office how it was possible that having an extra bag would cut down on our garbage, she replied, “They are bio-degradable when hit by sunlight.”

“What about all the bags that won’t be at the top of the trash that can’t be hit by the sun in order to break down?”

She gave me that “deer-caught-in-the-headlights” look and said, “These are bio-degradable.”

Along with having the extra trash bags that would magically cut down on the number of trash bags and our trash, the government also dictated that we had to start separating our garbage into cans, plastics, bottles, batteries, etc. This was also a major headache, but hey, with all the trash, the environmental disaster and all, everyone had to do our part. So I, like everyone else, eagerly started separating my trash.

OK, well, I wasn’t so eager, but if you didn’t separate your trash, they wouldn’t pick it up for you and you’d have to take it back. So we separated it.

Burnable refuse was collected on Wednesdays and Saturdays; non-burnable and plastics were collected on Thursdays; and papers, cardboard, newspapers and magazines, cans and glass bottles are collected on Tuesdays. Pet Bottles were collected once a month on a day I could never remember so we stopped buying things in Pet Bottles or threw those away when we went back to the store.

The plan, at the time they made it, was that the Tokyo Metropolitan government was going to implement even more rules in the near future on how garbage would be separated and handled so that Tokyo could be the model city for the entire world on how garbage is to be handled.

We’d show those Europeans and Americans! Just think of it. Tokyo! My Tokyo was going to show the entire world how to handle trash… It gave me goose bumps. It made me all proud and tingly all over. I hadn’t felt that tingly all over since, I think I was 12 or 13, I found a Playboy magazine under my dad’s bed for the first time.

Well, we all got used to this little arrangement with our trash as it went on here in Tokyo for about 15 years. Then, about 5 or 6 years ago, a scandal hit the news and it was learned that, in spite of us having to separate our garbage, the government was collecting it and burning it all together — at the same time anyway — or burying it in one festering pile. So, it didn’t matter that we separated our trash. Those clowns were throwing it all together, plastics, papers, cans, Cheese-Whiz, you-name-it into the incinerators and burning it all together anyhow.

Well, you can imagine that some people got a tad bit upset and some bureaucrat heads rolled (meet the new boss, same as the old boss) because it was learned that there was some sort of shenanigans going on between some bureaucrats and our trash services as money was changing hands, favors being given, etc.

When this became public knowledge, the government excuse was something like, “We haven’t the money yet to build for facilities to handle different kinds of garbage yet, but we wanted the local people to get used to the idea of separating their garbage. So that when we do build these facilities, the public will be ready.”

You can imagine just how much this news pleased me.

Sadly, though, I became disillusioned with the whole thing; my dreams of Tokyo being #1 and global-trash-dominance; my part in single-handedly helping to put a stop to Man-made Global Warming. While all that time, the Three Stooges were burning all the garbage at once, in the same place, like they’ve been doing since the 1950′s.

But this story doesn’t end here. It gets better.

A few months ago, in my effort to keep separating the garbage anyway (environmental crisis and all that, you know) I asked my wife where I was to throw away an empty Pet Bottle that I had just finished. She told me to put it together with the burnable trash.

“What?!”

I gather that now even the government has even grown tired of trying to keep up the faade of doing something useful and, in an effort to cut expenses, they cut down on trash collecting expenses. Not to mention the fact that they haven’t anywhere near the revenue necessary to build the new multi-million dollar facilities that they were planning to build way back when. This means, now, that they want your trash, burnable and all, in one bag.

Ah, the smell of fresh burnt Polyethylene Terephthalate in the morning during my drives to school! It smells like… It smells like… Victory.

We are still encouraged to separate cans and glass and papers — items that are useful and have a value to recyclers — but the regular trash (and whatever) goes all together. This important point, I believe, leads us to why the government will hassle the homeless.

Now, that you have a sufficient background on this trashy tale, dear readers, take my hand (I washed it) and let’s journey back to today. And how, on a road nearby my house, on that wonderful trash day morning, some poor homeless guy, digging for cans in the trash is accosted by the trash police.

You see, the idea of separating our trash, blah blah about the environment, or whatever, is not really about being more efficient and wasting less, it is about expanding government and taxing us more for less. It is a question about control. If history is any example, it is a story about government bureaucrats arranging sweetheart deals that involve kickbacks or “gifts.”

The homeless, on the other hand, lost and with little hope, struggle to survive every day. Some of these enterprising sorts have actually got the gumption to get up early and go out and load up a cart or bicycle with a few kilograms of empty cans once a week.

The government doesn’t want these homeless people picking up the empty cans and taking them into the recycling centers themselves. They claim that it is because the homeless do not clean up after themselves. The government is making a problem out of this where one shouldn’t exist.

I suspect that the real reason the government is making a fuss is really because the government wants the money for the aluminum cans for themselves. I also suspect that the trash pick up company has some sort of “sweet-heart” arrangement with the government in that they made the deal that as long as the government puts their thumbs on everyone’s head and insists that all separate the garbage, the trash company doesn’t have to do it, and that saves them time and money when they can easily take the goods to the recyclers themselves.

So what does the government do to stop these homeless from getting to the empty cans before the garbage-man does? How does the government prevent these dastardly homeless from taking the cans and recycling them for a few cents each? What could possibly be the most inefficient and least cost-effective way to deal with this problem? What would be the most incredibly stupid way to handle this crime wave?

I thought my idea was best when I joked to my wife that we should construct barbed wire fences around the trash areas, hire a bunch of guard dogs, and erect spotlights and machine gun towers. But no! That’s no good. They say that Tokyo streets are too narrow for that… Losers.


How they can load up a mountain of cans on those bikes and still ride them is truly a wonder to see

Well, to stop the homeless from stealing aluminum cans and trading them in for a few pennies each, the obvious governmental solution would be to concoct some plan that would cost far more to implement than the aluminum cans could ever be worth and create a bunch of “jobs” at the same time to boot! (I’d like to point out here that my "plan" fulfilled all these requirements and was much more "fun.")

The government has started patrolling the garbage piles on trash day. I kid you not. In Setagaya Ward, on trash day, there must be anywhere from 4 to 8 government marked patrol cars, with two old guys in uniform in each, driving around in them. These old guys drive around the ward and are on the lookout for the homeless stealing aluminum cans.

Can you believe these idiots? My idea was a complete cynicism. But! At least in my idea at least the guards got to wear cool uniforms like the SS or something. Who ever heard of guards in wimpy green uniforms? And what of the cost of starting up these patrols? Surely one month of patrolling must cost much more than a year’s worth of cans!

Talk about tripping over the dollar in order to pick up the penny. Spending far more money patrolling the garbage than the garbage could ever be worth? Are these people mad? This is really what the Setagaya Ward office government of Tokyo actually has done…Brilliant. Just brilliant.

But on a positive note, we no longer have to buy or use the government approved trash bags anymore either… But don’t even get me started on that!

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He is the president of an Internet & Cross Media advertising/marketing agency and a media production company named Universal Vision. He writes about marketing, the Internet and Social Media at the Modern Marketing Japan blog. His book, Schizophrenic in Japan, went on sale in 2005.

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