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Oversized trash

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Dear Alice,

The other day, on the street outside the building next to mine, I saw a nice looking table with a sodai gomi (oversized garbage) sticker it. When I returned with a tape measure to see if the table would fit in my living room, an elderly woman came out. “You can’t take that,” she said. “See this sticker? With ‘Tanaka’ on it? That means Tanaka-san paid to have this table recycled.” I countered that Tanaka-san had paid to have the table disposed of and I’m free to take it if I wish. She said, “That’s how it used to be. But now we pay for removal so it must be taken by the sodai gomi truck.” By this time I had decided I didn’t want the table. Tempted though I was to take the table just to spite the old meddler, I left it (and her) on the side of the road. But what the heck’s the deal here? Is it ok to take sodai gomi? Or was the old woman right?

Bill A, Yokohama

Dear Bill,

I found your question compelling and not only because I furnished my first apartment in Japan nearly entirely from the trash. That was back in the 1980s, the Golden Age of Trash Picking, when rubbish was less regulated and oversized garbage collection was free. One fateful evening, I bagged two kitchen chairs along with a chest of drawers, a black-and-white TV and a perfectly good vacuum cleaner.

My first thought upon reading your email was that it would have been better for the planet if Tanaka-san’s table ended up in your living room rather than as landfill. But I set aside personal sympathies and set out in search of an authoritative answer. Since rules vary by locality, I called the shigen junkan-kyoku (resource recycling department) in Yokohama where you live, and spoke to the official in charge. I’m sorry to tell you your neighbor was absolutely right.

Before I explain why, let me provide background for readers who may have never wrangled with rubbish rules. There’s a class of trash in Japan called sodai gomi, which basically includes everything bigger than a breadbox but smaller than an icebox. (Large appliances are a separate category.) A reasonable rule of thumb is if it won’t fit into a 45-liter trash bag (30 cm × 30 cm × 50 cm) but you can lift it, it’s probably sodai gomi.

Most communities have separate collection for oversized trash and charge for the service. About half use a pre-paid sticker system to collect the fees. Here’s how that works. First, you call a special number and request an appointment for trash pickup. In some places you can do this by Internet. In busy periods, you may wait up to a month for pickup. Once your pickup is scheduled, you must go to your government office or an authorized retailer and buy the appropriate amount in sodai gomi shori-ken. These are stickers you apply to your belonging to prove you’ve paid for its disposal. Where I live, the stickers are sold in convenience stores. On the morning of your appointment — no earlier, please — you put your sodai gomi out in the appointed spot and a truck will come by to collect it.

Now let’s return to your question. The official I spoke to stressed that until the moment of collection, the item belongs to the person who arranged for its disposal. “If something’s on the street for collection, and you want it, you need to contact the person who put it out and ask for permission to take it. Otherwise it’s stealing and someone may report you to the police.”

Even if you managed to make off with something before anyone called the cops, unauthorized removal causes problems. “If we get to a pickup place and the item isn’t there, we call the owner to see if they forgot to put it out,” the official explained. “If an owner decides to give an item away, we ask that they call us back and cancel. Otherwise we waste resources looking for an item that isn’t there.”

If all this sounds unnecessarily complicated, keep in mind that there are reasons the system evolved as it did. Forty or 50 years ago, Japanese households didn’t have as much stuff. What little there was to discard was almost always recycled. But the postwar period of high economic growth brought a wave of consumerism, and garbage disposal began to be a major social problem. This was especially true in cities, where trash piled up on the streets. In Tokyo, garbage pickup was not on a regular schedule and residents had no idea when the trucks might come. Some areas only got pickup once a month.

Then, just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a beautification plan was launched. The city promised regular pickups on a set schedule, and provided households with a standard plastic garbage pail. This helped clean up the streets but didn’t address the problem of oversized items that wouldn’t fit in the pails. So in 1969, Tokyo began a “station system,” creating points in neighborhoods where people could set out oversized items. However, there are traditional times of the year for major clean ups, when Japanese tend to toss out things all at the same time, and in those periods the sites would fill to overflowing. It was often so bad that traffic would be blocked. The solution, reached over a number of years, was the current system of pick-up by reservation. Tokyo introduced fees for oversized garbage collection in 1991.

The fees are generally modest but add up when you’ve done a major purge. This, and the cumbersome reservation system, seems to provide some incentive to recycle instead. Fortunately, most governments provide alternatives: some set up flea markets at which citizens can sell or give away unneeded items. Others pick up furniture in good condition at no charge and make it available to others for free by lottery.

For more on this topic, including hints on how to get or give away used items in Japan, please visit my blog at alicegordenker.wordpress.com. Puzzled by something you’ve seen? Tell me about it: whattheheckjt@yahoo.co.jp or Alice Gordenker, A&E Dept., The Japan Times, 4-5-4, Shibaura 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8071..

  • wanderingpippin

    Why is Bill from Yokohama so obsessed with the age group of the woman who rightfully informed him of how the system works, and why is he so disdainful if her, apparently because of her age? I hope he mans up, searches for her and apologizes to her for his disrespect and failure to learn the garbage system before mouthing off at her.
    Also readers should be aware that the system can be very different depending on location and it is their responsibility to research and learn the rules for wherever they live. Information is readily available at local government offices, on city web sites, etc.
    A case in point, in my city qualifying (i.e. items not falling under certain recycling requirements, dangerous materials regulations, or such), oversized garbage is picked up at the usual garbage collection points, once a month, free of any direct charge, no reservation or sticker necessary. This service is paid for with our tax money. However in the neighboring city, there is a paid for sticker requirement, but pickup days are set and no reservation is required.
    I have also seen reports on TV that said once an item, for incinerated or landfill trash, or for recycling, is placed at the trash collection site, it becomes property of the local government and taking it is stealing. This is to regulate those in the recycling business and prevent them from picking up bags full of cans etc from the collection points.

  • Nora Floritto

    If it has a sticker, contact the owner and give them some money. Most stuff doesn’t have a sticker.. take it. Unless it’s a bicycle. Then leave it in the trash unless you’re a girl. I never had problems riding my gomi bike, but many guys I know did.

  • JagoyaJones

    Bill is missing the point. Tanaka-san paid for it to be disposed of, NOT for it to be picked up by somebody to be used. They might have reasons for wanting it to be thrown away. Maybe they don’t want somebody to use something of theirs. It is their choice since it is their property. It is NOT Bill’s choice to take something that doesn’t belong to him regardless if it is set out disposal. Tanaka-san paid for it to be disposed of. The lady who informed you of the law is protecting her neighborhood. People like Bill cause problems for other non-Japanese who wish to abide by the law.

  • daggersedge

    I live in France and we have a similar system here, at least in my département. Until a few years ago, we could, once a month, just leave out oversized rubbish such as mattresses in a spot that was just across the road from our apartment block. Because of this was acting as a draw for types that like to go through rubbish amongst other things, this system was changed to one by reservation. There’s no additional payment at the moment, but it is more cumbersome.

  • kilianmuster

    If you want to dispose of furniture that is still perfectly usable, please do check first whether there is a recycle-center somewhere close to where you live. These are in Tokyo e.g. often run by the district or town (区 or 町 etc.) and they will pick up your stuff for free, clean it up and resell it for very little money (some will ask you to bring it, but might offer you free usage of a small truck of theirs).

    Likewise you can get some decent refurbished furniture from these recycle centres for almost no money at all. Throwing away should really be the very last resort.

  • upstairsforthinking

    From what I’ve observed, most people in Tokyo who want someone to take a sizeable item away (couch, microwave etc) without having to pay the disposal costs leave it out for a day or two *without* a sticker and see if anyone snaffles it. If no one does, a sticker is subsequently purchased and slapped on the said item on the arranged morning of disposal.

  • WR3A

    This is only half the story. Japan grew from repair and refurbishment of radio discards to become an electronics giant (see “Network of Tinkerers”) but then saw South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore do the same. Japan made it a crime to export equipment for reuse, and set requirements that material be shredded prior to export. Japan also ruled that it’s a violation of Fuji’s patent rights to put film back in a “single use” camera (Fuji tried to win the same case in the USA, resulting in a rare unanimous USA Supreme Court decision against Fuji), and does not ascribe to the “patent exhaustion principle” or single use doctrine. Manufacturers in Japan have a right to regulate the secondary market for used goods, much as USA law allows software companies the same under EULA.

  • Bill

    @wanderingpippin, “countered” was not my word choice; it was the editor’s. In my original letter I used “replied”. Why it was changed I do not know. Also, in my original letter I did not refer to her as “elderly woman”, “old meddler” and “old woman”. I used “pugnacious” and “cantankerous”. Why my adjectives were edited, I do not know; perhaps it was “dumbed down” so people such as yourself can better understand. Further edited from my original letter was how my antagonistic neighbor repeatedly asked me if I understood Japanese and joked to her friend that I probably did not.

    When you don’t have all the facts and don’t know how my original letter has been edited, it behooves you not to make such asinine comments.