With leaders from around the world as her audience, a young Japanese woman from Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture, spoke about her small town’s “zero waste” initiatives, urging the globally influential audience to act to change society.

“Our population is only 1,500, and more than half is 65 years and older. But what is unique about our town is that we are the first municipality or government that declared an ambitious goal to become zero waste by 2020,” Akira Sakano, chair of the board at Zero Waste Academy in Japan, a nonprofit organization working to reduce waste in society, told the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, late last month.

“It is the policy and initiative to make no waste out of our community,” Sakano said, adding that her town enrolled every resident and asked all of them to bring their waste to a collection center to separate into 45 categories for recycling.

This year, Sakano was selected as one of seven co-chairs to represent the WEF conference, which ran from Jan. 22 to 25.

Unlike previous co-chairs, who had hailed from big corporations and international organizations, this year’s contingent was mainly composed of young leaders who have blazed trails in fields ranging from environmental protection to humanitarian relief and social entrepreneurship. Only one was a bigwig — Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella.

“When I received an email saying the WEF is inviting me to Davos as the meeting’s co-chair, I thought it was spam,” Sakano, 30, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

“We all share the same value, which is ‘not to leave anyone behind.’ But how can we do it? We have to think about not just humans, but also about climate change and ways to preserve biodiversity on the Earth,” Sakano stressed.

In 2003, Kamikatsu, situated in a forested mountainous area in Tokushima, announced that by 2020 it will stop generating waste that needs to be incinerated or buried. Thanks to the rigorous program by Zero Waste Academy and Hibigatani Waste Station, a facility the NPO operates, 81 percent of the town’s waste is either recycled, reused or composted.

Though Sakano is leading the initiative, she is not originally from the town. The native of Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, spent time in Mongolia while she was a student at Kwansei Gakuin University. Upon graduation, she worked for DHL Global Forwarding in the Philippines for two years, hoping to learn how big companies operate.

After returning to Japan in 2014, she went to Kamikatsu, following in the footsteps of her close friend, a native of the town who was running a cafe there.

Sakano’s initial plan was to stay for half a year before moving on to a graduate school overseas. But both ended up joining Zero Waste Academy instead because it was looking for someone to lead its projects.

“I thought Kamikatsu’s case would be a good example of how a municipality implements a zero-waste policy. It would be great to experience a real case first-hand,” Sakano recalled.

So she shelved her plan to go to graduate school and eventually took the helm of the NPO in 2015.

The town’s efforts aren’t limited only to the waste collection center. The organization runs multiple projects to reduce waste, including a Kurukuru shop and a Kurukuru craft center.

The Kurukuru shop is a place where residents can drop off items they no longer use and take home anything they want for free. At the craft center, elderly women help recycle clothes, such as by making jackets and bags out of old koinobori (carp streamers) or kimono.

Kamikatsu also gives “cloth diaper start kits” to local families with babies under 1 year old. Unlike disposable diapers made of paper, cloth diapers can be washed and reused.

The NPO also works with businesses, offering consulting and accreditation to companies aspiring to achieve zero waste status.

With the support of local restaurants, the organization launched a project to sell spices as well.

“If you bring your own container, you can directly purchase spice from the restaurant,” she said, adding that such direct sales will do away with unnecessary containers used for distribution.

Although such efforts have raised the town’s profile internationally, Sakano admits that she and her team are facing an even bigger problem there — aging and depopulation.

The town’s population of 6,265 in 1955 stood at just 1,582 in 2018.

“Every year, the town loses 50 people,” she said. “The foundation of the town is people. No matter how much we work to create a zero-waste society, the town will not be sustainable unless people are there to think about the next generation and work for it.”

She also feels that the town’s initiatives alone will not lead to its goal of becoming a zero-waste society, and that companies must develop recyclable designs for their products.

“People often ask me about what we will do about the remaining 20 percent (of the town’s waste). But unless the products themselves change, it is not possible to achieve this,” Sakano said.

Sakano will continue to face challenges. Still, her participation in the Davos conference was a rare opportunity for the young leader to let global leaders know what a small town like Kamikatsu can do.

“A systemic change on a broader scale involving businesses is necessary to do more. I think I could convey the message that those people who gathered at Davos must act to change,” she said. “Everyone asks me if it is possible to achieve zero waste by 2020. I would say yes, but only if we get everyone on board.”

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