Kazuko opens the doors to the utility shed next to her home and pulls out a clear garbage bag. It’s stuffed with random plastic waste like wrappers, empty tofu containers and grocery bags. All of the items are conscientiously rinsed, dried and stored.

It’s recyclable garbage day on Shiraishi Island and my next-door neighbor is doing what she has done every third Tuesday morning of the month since I’ve known her.

Waste paper has been folded neatly and arranged horizontally inside an already-bulging oblong paper shopping bag. Another smaller bag holds stacks of Styrofoam trays, the kind that meat and fish are sold on. Also at the ready are neat bundles of throw-away clothing tied up with the kind of plastic packing tape deemed most appropriate for binding fabric, as well as newspapers and magazines. She’s so skilled at parting with stuff, she’d make Marie Kondo proud, although when I ask Kazuko, she says she’s never heard of the organizing guru.

Kazuko puts her food scraps into a compost bin in her garden where she also grows her own vegetables. Next to the rows of veggies, she plants flowers that later appear in vases around her house throughout the year, even inside the old- fashion toilet room. Since all of the private houses on our island are outfitted with non-flush toilets, the second Thursday of every month is the designated toilet cleaning day, when trucks are ferried over from the mainland to clean out the cesspits.

Every bit counts

Drifting onto the shore: Plastic garbage washes ashore with more natural debris prompting the residents of Shiraishi Island to take part in regular beach cleanups. | AMY CHAVEZ
Drifting onto the shore: Plastic garbage washes ashore with more natural debris prompting the residents of Shiraishi Island to take part in regular beach cleanups. | AMY CHAVEZ

I’m not as good as my neighbor at setting aside random plastic waste or separating paper from plastic. My recycling divisions are more rudimentary: glass, cans and PET bottles. My plastic packaging goes out with the burnables, which are, more conveniently, picked up twice a week. I don’t compost either since I own no land other than the exact footprint of my house. Still, I know I could, and should, do better.

The truth is, I’m lucky to even be home at 8 a.m. on pickup day. Jobs often take me elsewhere and it’s not unusual for me to be off the island for days at a time. Even with my limited recycling bins of cans, glass and PET bottles I can be stuck with the same garbage for two months or longer if I’m absent on that crucial Tuesday.

Having said that, I’m home for this month’s recycling day and am jumping at the chance to not just recycle my bottles and cans, but to put out old newspapers and magazines as well. I hardly ever eat meat, so I have few Styrofoam trays. I take my own tote bag to the supermarket so I have fewer vinyl shopping bags. My old clothes have been cut up into squares to use as cleaning rags, so I have no textiles to abandon there today. Any ropey leftovers such as drawstrings or old shoe laces are added to a never-ending string spun from gift ribbons and used plastic binding from delivered packages. The result is an odd ball of shoddy string that any cat would covet. When I’m really desperate to get rid of paper and cardboard, I prefer to incinerate it than to put it out with the burnables.

Other islanders do this, too. One restaurant and inn on the beach, for example, burns all its own garbage in the summertime. How can’t they? There isn’t enough storage space for the heaps of garbage created by the hundreds of visitors in peak season. There are no public garbage cans on the island either. So anything flammable is incinerated every evening to free up storage space for the recyclables.

When the air temperature drops in the winter, I fire up the electric heater in my house while next-door Kazuko wraps herself up in layers of feather down, dons a hand-knitted hat and hibernates under the heated kotatsu table. Before she goes to sleep, she turns her electric blanket off. That’s life on the island, but it tends to be the same in other Japanese households. Most families spend the entire winter in one room of the house: the heated one.

The island effect

Ready to go: Bags of PET bottles and cans wait to be picked up by recycling trucks. | AMY CHAVEZ
Ready to go: Bags of PET bottles and cans wait to be picked up by recycling trucks. | AMY CHAVEZ

The average person on Shiraishi Island is rather blase about the climate crisis, despite more frequent and threatening typhoons, and the rising seas at their front doors . Most see no direct connection between climate change and their everyday actions. They already live far more sustainable lives than most city dwellers could ever aspire to. Most don’t even own a car.

Islanders are taught to recycle, so they recycle. They are not, however, educated on how to limit unnecessary consumption, to choose environmentally friendly products over ones that aren’t, or to say no to plastic. They are not encouraged to avoid over-consumption, because rampant expenditure is really what’s fueling the country’s economy.

Until recently, a refillable shampoo pouch was more expensive at our island grocery store than buying a brand new pump-enhanced plastic bottle full of the same brand (and, even now, it’s not much cheaper). While I carry my own water bottle, not many others do because buying a drink from Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines is more convenient. A paltry number of consumers carry their own shopping bag despite the “my bag” movement having been around for more than 20 years.

A few residents initiate beach cleanups to beautify the area so that beach-goers still come, but fishermen continue to use uncovered Styrofoam floats that break down slowly and disperse small beads into the sea. They chuck blown bulbs from their night lanterns into the sea, and still drag their nets along the bottom of the ocean floor. Inns on the beach attract guests via promises of jibikiami, a group event in which large nets are thrown out into a horseshoe shape from the beach, guests grab ropes on either side of that horseshoe and then pull in the net. The result is a dozen or so big fish for a barbecue, and thousands of unneeded smaller fish left to die.

The government is trying to protect our island from rising seas by building sea walls and paying subsidies to fishermen for their sacrifice, since the sea walls destroy the beaches they use to spread out their nets for maintenance, and replace the large stretches of sand needed to assemble frames for seaweed farming. Sea walls make fishermen smile and islanders feel safe. Construction companies thrive and workers remain employed.

And how can a small private inn on the beach feel guilty about burning garbage when, in plain view across the Seto Inland Sea, a steel factory on the mainland spews out tons of carbon from its chimneys? Islanders, who watch the ominous flames from across the water, notice the black smoke every night and can only shake their heads. Even if I’m inside and don’t witness the conflagration of impurities first-hand, in the morning when I wipe down my outdoor table, a thick layer of black particles coats my recycled cleaning cloth. It seems unfair to expect people to take steps to be more environmentally friendly when the larger polluters around them aren’t being brought into line.

Islanders complain more often now about sore throats brought on by poor quality air. Last year, we began hearing public announcements, which originate from the mainland, warning us to close the windows on poor air-quality days and, if possible, stay inside. One islander I know called City Hall to complain about her sore throat. Another harped about the black dust. Still another voiced her dissatisfaction with the plastic waste washing up onto the beach. As far as I’m aware, nothing has changed.

The only way islanders will become more enthusiastic about helping the environment is through education and good leadership. What we need are better role models for how to live sustainably.

Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).

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