Zero Waste Japan

The new Zero Waste group on the block

Interview with Mitsuhisa Okuno by Sonia G. Astudillo

When we hear of Japan, we envision clean cities, picturesque scenery, and disciplined citizens. Not much has been said about the Zero Waste movement happening there except for a few great articles on Kamikatsu Town. GAIA sat down with Mitsuhisa Okuno, one of the founding members of Zero Waste Japan to talk about their plans and visions.

Barely one year old, this group promises to be the new group to watch out for with Akira Sakano and Masato Iseki leading the organization. Akira and Masato met early in 2019 in a conference on circular economy and waste reduction practices within corporations. Both share the view that Zero Waste reduction is strongly tied to climate change and other environmental and social issues. That conversation led to a shared vision and optimism to create several Zero Waste case studies around Japan.      

“What they noticed is that international organizations have a key purpose with global goals and mobilizing politicians and corporations,” said Mitsuhisa, “but when it comes to creating models or alternative society, these organizations stop short because there are just too many stakeholders involved.”

“Zero Waste Japan believes that we can break that barrier by creating small models in the community.  Through a bottom up approach, we hope to make changes in the national and international policies,” added Mitsuhisa. Currently Zero Waste Japan has 2 full time staff (Akira and Mitsuhisa) and 2 part-time staff who specialize in forest conservation and climate and energy policies. 

While established in November 2019, the group started to operate just this July and already they are looking at three key stakeholders: (1) local residents – for community engagement, community building, and education, (2) municipalities –to achieve Zero Waste, implementing policies and plans within the municipality, and (3) businesses to bring them in as much as possible. 

What are Zero Waste Japan’s top priorities?

It is to create more Zero Waste case studies in Japan, beyond Kamikatsu. Currently we are working with two communities: one is closely tied to a municipality government and the other with a local community foundation with a population of 30,000 and 10,000.

Due to COVID-19, a lot of the project has been delayed and as much as we are committed to the work, there is a lot of thinking that needs to happen. At present the community is also trying to identify what kind of change they want: there is a potential that it may not be Zero Waste only but closer to circular economy and more emphasis on materials circulation which obviously involves waste reduction. We are open to also being involved in projects with focus on other issues or topics but incorporates Zero Waste and other socio-economic issues.

The structure is that we identify the waste situation (where it comes from, who produces it, and where it goes), then depending on their social needs we try to come up with solutions, and then consider the feasibility of the solution based on the budget restraint of the municipality or the foundation, then we try to identify and co-create solutions that fit the narrative that may help other issues of the community.

The most successful waste reduction model in Japan took 10 years to achieve.  So we try to get things going and ignite the momentum. Our strength is that we have a very strong knowledge on Japan policy but we also like to be a player in the community to educate and to develop new leaders who will take on the Zero Waste reduction movement. Our work is a combination of developing policies and partnership with communities. 

What are the other issues you work with along with the Zero Waste goal?

People continue to leave to go to big cities to make money.  Even if we talk about waste, what the municipality officers have in mind is even if we reduce waste people are still leaving this town and can we stop that somehow. In addition to that, the population is ageing. Those are the social challenges that a lot of these communities have all over in Japan. We can’t just bring in Zero Waste by itself because that will not incentivize the community to do waste reduction or any environmental kind of thinking. We like to include other social entrepreneurs to discuss with them how Zero Waste can benefit and support them in various contexts.

It is important that we match what kind of vision they have for the community. We want to make sure that Zero Waste matches with the kind of community that they want to establish. A lot of the Zero Waste practices that are implemented in Japan are issue based. Example is replacing an old incinerator with Zero Waste activities. It is usually the issue that drove the movement. We don’t want to rely on issues. We want to create models that have economic and social benefits to the community. We want to be able to say we don’t want incinerators because there are better options.

What are your ongoing campaigns?

We don’t run campaigns but projects and provide consultations. One of such is the Zero Waste Accreditation that we organize. 

How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next few years?

We are hoping to hire more people. This year is preparation and trying to establish ways to communicate online. We are also finding effective ways to sell the message to the community and to educate them. We are also learning more about waste issues, collection information, and understanding the situation in different regions and contexts.

For next year, we will launch several programs that will help waste reduction within the community. We want to test it to see how effective it is toward achieving Zero Waste.

How can Zero Waste Japan be part of the economic recovery post-COVID?

We don’t have specific solutions. Achieving Zero Waste has economic benefit but sustainability action is not the top priority for businesses.  We want to bring conversation onward within citizens, policy makers and businesses.