Dear Alice,

What the heck is that symbol I see on plastic packages in Japan? I assume, from the arrows in a circulating pattern, that it means the package is recyclable. But I'm not sure because I can't read the Japanese inside the arrows. I hate it that half my trash is plastic and I don't know how to dispose of it properly.

Trish B., Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture

Dear Trish,

That symbol does indeed mean the package is recyclable. It's referred to as the pura mark because the two katakana inside the arrows are pu and ra — the first two syllables in purasuchikku, the Japanese word for plastic.

The pura mark is one of several risaikuru shikibetsu hyoji (recycling identification symbols) used on packaging to help consumers sort their waste for recycling. Another is a triangle of arrows with the number 1 and the letters "PET," which is used on polyethylene terephthalate bottles. PET bottles are collected and recycled separately from other plastics.

These recycling symbols were mandated on certain products by laws passed in the 1990s. At the time, Japan's waste output had been growing steadily, driving up disposal costs and putting serious pressure on already limited landfill space.

The law that brought us the pura mark is the Container & Packaging Recycling Law, which came into full effect in 2000. Under the law, containers and wrappings "that become unnecessary once their contents have been removed or consumed" must be recycled by the businesses that manufacture and use them.

In theory, businesses could do the recycling themselves, but what most companies do is contract out to an organization called the Japan Containers and Packaging Recycling Association, paying recycling fees in accordance with the amount of packaging they use or sell. Local governments bear the cost of collecting, sorting and storing the used containers. Consumers, meanwhile, are responsible for cleaning and sorting their trash according to local rules. These can vary quite a bit, depending on the facilities, budget and commitment of the municipality.

Where I live, for example, it's OK to put out toys, bath buckets and other plastic items, even though such products aren't packaging and therefore don't bear the pura mark. But when I checked the rules for Koriyama, where you live, I saw that you'd have to dispose of toys with your burnable garbage.

Learning the rules takes some effort, particularly if you don't read Japanese. The best place to start is your local government office; many municipalities prepare information in at least one foreign language. Koriyama has a garbage-sorting chart on its Web site in passable English.

If there was a What-the-Heck award for waste reduction, it would go to the town of Osaki in Kagoshima Prefecture (pop. 15,406), which has the highest rate of recycling in all of Japan. In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Osaki recycled more than 80 percent of its trash. That compares to the national average of 19.6 percent. Osaki does this by collecting and sorting 26 different items, including used disposable chopsticks and even those little wooden boards that come under your kamaboko (surimi fish cakes).

You say half your garbage is plastic? Actually, if Trish trash is typical trash, that estimate is probably high. In the average household in Japan about 60 percent of waste consists of packaging. About 38 percent of that is plastic. But that's only by volume. If you sort the trash again by weight — and someone must do that for a living to produce these statistics — packaging accounts for about 20 percent, of which 8 percent is plastic.

Surprisingly, for a country that makes you fight through multiple layers of plastic to get to a single cookie, Japan is actually much less wasteful than other industrialized nations. The United States, for example, produces more garbage than any of the countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — four times as much as Japan, with only twice the population. Japan puts out somewhat more garbage than Germany, England or France, but also has more people. So the bag-per-body count is actually significantly lower in Japan.

What's more, Japan has been steadily trimming its waste since 2001. According to the most recent figures from the Ministry of the Environment, the per-person trash tally dropped 2.3 percent in 2007. That was accomplished partially through better recycling, but also through efforts to reduce the amount of garbage produced in the first place. You'll be glad to know that package producers, too, have been doing their part.

"The function of packaging is to preserve and protect the product," explained Tatsuhiro Shinohara of the Plastic Packaging Recycling Council, an association of 32 organizations and 67 companies that make and use plastic packaging. "But we are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of plastic needed to get the job done."

The association publishes an annual booklet of packaging innovations that save on plastic. Food manufacturer Yakult, for example, redesigned the cap for its 2-liter beverage bottles with a slightly fluted edge. This makes the cap easier to grip, but also requires less plastic to make, reducing the amount of plastic entering the waste stream by 800 kg per year.

A company that manufacturers the white food trays used to package raw meat, fish and vegetables has a program to collect used trays, retrieving about 30 percent of those it sells. It recycles what it collects into new trays, coating the surfaces with virgin film suitable for food contact. The company says the recycled trays not only reduce waste, but also result in lower carbon dioxide emissions.

Weighed against our mountains of garbage, such savings may not seem like much. But every reduction is a step in the right direction. Japan has a garbage goal: By 2015, the government wants us to reduce total trash output by 20 percent compared to 2000 levels. We all need to do our part to meet that target.