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ISHES Newsletter #50: "Circular Village," Osaki Town: The Efforts of Japan's Top-Ranked Recycling Municipality

2023/02/24 18:43:58
ISHES Newsletter #50
February 24, 2023

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Copyright (c) 2023

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan


Dear Readers,

We send our condolences to the many people affected by the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and pray for a rapid recovery in the affected areas.

In this issue, we introduce a story about the efforts of the town of Osaki in Kagoshima Prefecture, which has the best recycling rates in all of Japan.


"Circular Village," Osaki Town: The Efforts of Japan's
Top-Ranked Recycling Municipality


By the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES), Japan

How on Earth can a municipality reach a recycling rate of over 80%, as the town of Osaki in Kagoshima Prefecture has done? In this article, we introduce the strategies used by this town to tackle the garbage problem under a vision of becoming a "circular village," by bringing in outside information, knowledge, and people to develop expertise at the local level.

Osaki Town is located in the eastern part of the Osumi Peninsula in Kagoshima Prefecture, with a population of 12,342 (as of February 1, 2023). Facing Shibushi Bay, it is an agricultural town rich in nature, ranking among the top municipalities in Japan in terms of the value of agricultural production.

The recycling rate in Osaki was 83.1% in the 2020 fiscal year, compared to the national average of about 20%. The town has achieved the Japan's top recycling rate 14 times so far. The town was selected in 2019 as one of the SDGs Future Cities, a program under the national government to promote local initiatives around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and it has received various other awards and recognition as well. How has Osaki been able to achieve such a high recycling rate? This issue of the ISHES Newsletter introduces the town's recycling system and initiatives that led to solutions of local issues, by utilizing its strengths as Japan's leading recycling town.

Osaki's journey to the SDGs started with waste

Osaki has no incineration plant, in contrast to many municipalities in Japan, which amounted to 70 to 75% in the past decade. The town originally tackled its waste issue by dumping all of it in the landfill. In 1998, however, it faced a big problem. Town hall realized that the landfill site would soon be full unless something changed dramatically.

At that time, the town had three options. The first was to build an incineration plant. The second was to find a new landfill site. The third was to continue to use the current site by making it last longer. The easiest solution was to construct an incineration plant with subsidies and other financial support. It turned out, however, that it would be prohibitive to operate, because the annual running cost was estimated to be as much as 300 million yen (about US$2.3 million), which would be a huge chunk of the town's tax annual revenues of about 1.5 billion yen (about US$11.5 million). The second option, constructing a new landfill site, was opposed by many residents. Therefore, the town went with the third option, to extend the life of the current landfill site.

The recycling system in Osaki

In Osaki today, waste is sorted into 27 categories. "This has only become possible through three-way collaboration among individual residents, businesses including the recycling center and collecting companies, and the town administration," says Shinichi Nakano, the director of the planning and coordination division at town hall.

First, residents separate their waste at home or at offices. Then they bring their waste sorted by category, to the stations for container collection. Food waste is collected three times a week at local collection points, while other wastes are collected once a month. The recycling center is commissioned by the town to collect and check waste. The waste that has passed the check is sorted by category and "shipped" out as product. In Osaki, based on the idea that the waste is a "resource," they use the expression of "shipping" instead of "disposing" waste.

Container collection station once a month / Checking waste at the recycling center
Photos provided by Osaki Town

Regarding waste management, the most important role for the local government is communication with residents. When this waste separation system started 25 years ago, the town held nearly 450 briefings in about 150 areas. Still now, the town holds a training session for local leaders once a year.

Generally, when a local government organizes this kind of briefing for residents, the tendency is to set the time, date and location and ask people to come. But in Osaki, the town asks the residents themselves to set the date and time, and then sends personnel out to the neighborhood so that the people who actually sort their waste at home can more easily participate.

A neighborhood briefing for residents in the early days
Photo provided by Osaki Town

At first, residents had the perception that waste was an issue for the municipal government to worry about, not something for residents to deal with. But by getting across the message that people might have to accept a landfill next door, and explaining the situation, they were able to move away from the town-hall-versus-residents thinking and instead get people to realize that everyone was in this together. After three months of effort by all the town staff, the tone shifted to some residents persuading others. In the end, everyone shared a sense of community, realizing they all needed to work together to tackle the waste issue.

"Mixed, it's garbage. Sorted, it's a resource."

The two major kinds of waste in Osaki are food waste (24.5%) and wood and plant waste from pruning, etc. (39.4%). Combined, this comes to some 64%, which today is turned into compost. Residents' efforts to sort and recycle their waste created a recycled resource from what previously was being landfilled. Compared to 1998 when the recycling system started, the town has reduced landfill waste by about 84%.

In terms of the per capita cost of waste disposal, Osaki is at 11,500 yen (about US$88), well below the national average is 16,800 yen (about US$129). By simple math, the town saves some 70 million yen (about US$540,000) annually as a result. The savings are significant and can be used beneficially in other areas, such as welfare and education. Meanwhile, the town's recycling center handles recyclable waste for a total of about 100,000 residents in the town and neighboring municipalities, creating jobs for about 40 people.

Sorted recyclable waste is recycled by category and some of it is sold for a price. Total revenues since the waste sorting began come to about 150 million yen (about US$1.2 million). In 2018, the Recycling for Future Creation Scholarship Loan was launched, utilizing some of the revenues. With it, the town pays a scholarship of 50,000 yen (about US$390) per month to students who are otherwise unable to afford university. To promote a circular local economy, the town also issues 10,000 yen (about US$77) in gift certificates every year to every resident, young and old, that can only be spent in the town.

Since 2012, with support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Osaki has been providing technical support to create resident-centered recycling programs in Depok (West Java Province) and Denpasar (Bali Province) in Indonesia. Based in part on Osaki's system, a recycling center was established in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, which like Osaki has to deal with waste without relying on incineration . Osaki's style of low-cost sustainable recycling-oriented waste management system has been spreading, mainly in Asia.

Briefing for local residents in Depok, Indonesia
Photo provided by Osaki Town

Tackling local issues

Depopulation of communities is a nationwide problem in Japan. Osaki's population is expected to drop below 10,000 by 2030, which could put the sustainability of the town at stake.

The town was facing increasing challenges, such as rising medical expenditures, a growing number of vacant houses, a shortage of labor, and rising education costs. The town's initiatives had been recognized externally, but resident satisfaction was not improving, due to the town's labor shortage and budget cuts. With a dwindling sense of ownership and more expectations being placed on the town government, residents had complaints and distrust. Why was there friction, even among people who shared the same concerns? The town realized that it was because of the lack of dialogue due to the lack of information, knowledge and human resources.

The town is working on two things to solve this problem: improving the performance of its town hall employees, and introducing information, knowledge and human resources from outside.

Osaki concluded a partnership agreement on the joint development of Osaki Town Recycling for Future Creation Program, with the Kagoshima Sogo Shinkin Bank and the Keio Research Institute (Shonan Fujisawa Campus), using the profits from its recycling operations, for the purpose of fostering and exchanging human resources for local revitalization, activation, and social innovation. The town also paid tuitions for its employees to study in master's programs at the Keio University Graduate School.

After the exchange of information and knowledge with the outside world, Osaki's initiative was redefined in the context of the SDGs, which led to the town receiving numerous awards, including the Japan SDGs Award. Recognition from outside boosted the motivation of local residents, creating a virtuous cycle and pride in the community.

Concept of "circular village" proposed by Osaki Town

Osaki hopes to use its unique recycling system to support recycling-oriented communities across Japan, targeting municipalities with a population of about 10,000 residents. The idea is to present a model for recycling-based community management that can be applied locally. To address issues related to worker shortages in recycling and other industries in a multicultural society, it will be essential to foster human resources through collaboration with others globally, locally, and in the surrounding region.

The town invited external human resources based on the Locally Revitalizing Business People Program, in which experts are dispatched from the central government to regional communities, and jointly established a corporation with private businesses, a bank and the local government. Through Yahoo!Japan, Osaki was also selected as the first recipient of donations in the corporate version of furusato nozei (hometown tax program) on the "carbon neutral" theme. In the hometown tax program, businesses are subject to corporate tax breaks when they donate to initiatives for regional revitalization run by local public organizations certified by the national government. In 2021, Osaki received about 350 million yen (about US$2.7 million) through this program.

With the funds, the town decided to run a recycling-based model city program, dubbed "circular village," with a budget of about one billion yen (about US$7.7 million) to 2024 for the first phase of the program. Companies are actively invited to send personnel to Osaki for the town's pilot study. This is a program jointly organized between businesses and the community to address social issues.

For example, the town has been working with a manufacturer, Unicharm Corporation, and surrounding municipalities to recycle paper diapers, which currently account for one third of waste (by weight) going to Osaki's landfill. If paper diapers can be recycled, Osaki can extend the life of its landfill even further.

If we consider the concept of a circular economy, that is, products being manufactured from raw materials, distributed, consumed and then recycled, we can see how Osaki was able to intervene in the consumption and waste-sorting part of the cycle. To further reduce environmental impacts, however, outside partnerships are also essential. The town's landfill site is expected to fill up within 40 years. For the generations that will be alive then and in the future, Osaki aims to create a sustainable global standard in collaboration with all the parties involved, through two approaches -- expanding the recycling system beyond the town, and creating a circular system by working on the waste problem with upstream businesses.

Photo provided by Osaki Town


(End of article)

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