What We Can Learn from Kamikatsu and Their Zero-Waste Efforts Sustainable Investment Group

What We Can Learn from Kamikatsu and Their Zero-Waste Efforts

September 20, 2021

By Grace Wang
Sustainability Analyst
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

Edited by Ariana Nieves

goal of zero wasteZero-waste is aiming to reuse, recycle, and refuse items to send as little to no waste to landfills, incinerators, or other waste spaces. The practice is designed to minimize consumption and encourage consumers to alternatively utilize what they have and reduce the amount of waste from each object. The Zero Waste International Alliance has defined zero-waste as “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health” (Zero Waste International Alliance). Most items are created in the cradle-to-grave model; they are made with no intention to reuse materials. The materials follow a linear model of moving from resource extraction, to manufacturing, to consumer usage and ending in the landfill. However, zero-waste focuses on the cradle-to-cradle model, where the material used to make the item will be made into a new item at the end of a lifetime. The materials are recycled and used more efficiently. Zero-waste is an ever-growing movement among consumers and is often a way for individuals to take control of their financial habits.

In the early 2000s, Kamikatsu, a village located on Japan’s Shikoku Island, created an impressive goal to become zero-waste by 2020. Currently, the island impressively categorizes its recyclables into 45 categories. However, this was not always the case for the small community in rural Japan. In 2000, new laws imposed on the village forced them to shut down two small trash incinerators. Lack of resources and finances meant that Kamikatsu’s community could not build new incinerators or easily transport the waste to other facilities outside the town borders. Citizens would also resort to burning their trash in the yard or simply dumping their waste into nature. However, this only put a further burden on the Earth around them and trickled down to the health of the individuals. Their only solution: reduce their rubbish, maximize reusing and recycling, and implement efficient waste management systems.

Fast forward to 2003, the small village of Kamikatsu became the first village in Japan to pass the Zero-Waste Declaration. The Zero Waste Academy leads the efforts, and the village has seen great success in waste reduction as a product of communal diligence and mindfulness. In addition to the impressive and detailed recycling system, people can bring their items in good condition to a recycling store where others can take and reuse the items for free. A new factory is designated for the re-creation of products from recycled items. Additionally, a reward system incentivizes residents to not buy or use products that end up as waste. Whole lifestyle changes were implemented by individuals, families, and businesses. Leaders in government and the Zero Waste Academy worked hard to educate and support these changes. Studies show that in fiscal 2016, the village recycled 81% of produced waste compared to Japan’s national average of only 20%. Residents have also noted the returning beauty of nature with the lack of in-village incinerators.

Kamikatsu aimed to achieve zero waste by 2020, but the change was not easy for villagers, and the 2020 mark was not met. In the early days, citizens opposed the amount of energy and time required to sort, wash, and dispose within the recycling framework. People had to take apart certain items if the object’s components fit into multiple categories. The obligation and complexity, previous misunderstandings about waste, and the negative human health and environmental effects contributed to a lack of motivation and confusion. Despite the care and time invested by each community member and their leaders to overcome initial challenges, the goal of zero waste by 2020 was still not met due to systematic issues. The village runs into trouble recycling certain items that do not fit into the recyclable categories. Consumers in the village still rely on non-recyclable goods in their day-to-day lives, including leather shoes and sanitary products that unfortunately end up in landfills or incinerators. Citizens recognize their reliance on the manufacturers’ non-recyclable goods and the deep impacts on their methods of waste management and disposal, but it is also an issue that is close to impossible to avoid.

illustration showing icons for refuse reuse recycle rotZero-waste is difficult within the current framework of our consumer goods and waste systems. Despite the efforts of Kamikatsu for the past 18 years, they are still working towards their goal since waste reduction can only go so far from a consumer standpoint. Kamikatsu recognizes that even if objects are primarily composed of recyclable material—such as paper, aluminum, and cardboard—there are plastic components that were non-recyclable. Manufacturers in charge of creating daily necessities make it hard for individuals to be truly zero-waste. Only when they stop producing non-recyclable products designed to be thrown out will towns like Kamikatsu be able to reach 100% zero-waste. The world is calling on big manufacturers to create less wasteful products and use less non-recyclable materials so we can all enjoy a greener Earth.


Garfield, Leanna. “The simple way this Japanese town has become nearly zero-waste,” Business          Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/zero-waste-town-kamikatsu-japan-2017-7

“Japan’s Town With No Waste,” Great Big Story, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OS9uhASKyjA

McCurry, Justin. “‘No-waste’ Japanese village is a peek into carbon-neutral future,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/20/no-waste-japanese-village-is-a-  peek-into-carbon-neutral-future

Zero Waste Academy, https://zwa.jp/en/

“Zero Waste Definition,” Zero Waste International Alliance, https://zwia.org/zero-waste-definition/

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