The initial reaction might be one of mixed feelings.
“How are the streets not FULL of garbage?”
“I don’t get why Tokyo is so clean?”
“And…what do I do with this greasy paper from the Fami-Chicken I just devoured?!’ (If you haven’t heard of Fami-Chicken before, meet the fried king of late night post-drinking convenience store snacks)
These are things that come to mind for first time visitors to Japan once they realize that there are almost NO public garbage cans in Japan! But why? And actually, how does a big city like Tokyo keep so amazingly clean?! There’s no one definitive answer for why there are so few public rubbish bins here, but here are some of the things that have led to the slow and steady reduction of these public pails.
It started as a counter-terrorism measure.
The reason for no garbage bins in Japan is similar as to the reason why there are no coin lockers in New York City.
On March 20, 1995, the city of Tokyo was shaken by a domestic terror-attack that led to multiple deaths and injuries. Known now as the 1995 Subway Salin Incident, a cult group called AUM Shinrikyo released lab-grad Sarin in multiple Tokyo subway stations. Sarin gas is incredibly toxic, and more powerful than cyanide. As the gas is colorless and odorless, it’s difficult to detect, and when exposed to a lethal dose, those effected might die in as little as 1-10 minutes, with victims suffering from paralysis that leads to suffocation. Sarin, which is a man-made gas, was classified as a chemical weapon and banned for use by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. The highly poisonous gas wsa brought into the subway in plastic bags, which cult members then punctured inside 3 different subway cars using sharpened umbrellas. The attacks were carried out in Kasumigaseki, close to the National Diet, and led to the death of 13 and serious injuries in approximately 6,300 people.
For a country with low crime and little domestic terrorism, this attack came as a great shock. Removing public trash cans was one measure for preventing future attacks, as it was believed this was another place where dangerous substances could easily be deposited.
Public trash collection also requires use of public funds.
Another reason for the lack garbage bins, is that collection is expensive! Waste collection is managed by individual wards and townships, but for the most part, it is a free public service, which isn’t the case in all countries. That being the case, fitting trash cans in big cities like Tokyo across the central areas would lead to a jump in demands for labor (the country is already in the midst of a long term labor shortage that is expected to worsen in the future) and a whole new pocket of funding. For now, it makes sense to simply ask people to take their trash home and separate it there, and overall, people do care about keeping public spaces clean and not trashing the environment.
So where can I find garbage cans?
While rare, it would be false to say there truly are no public garbage bins in Japan. You’ll find them in public parks, some train stations, and public restrooms. You’ll also notice that next to vending machines, there are special recycling receptacles for the cans, glass and plastic bottles after you buy and finish your drink. (Less people tend to walk and eat or drink here, so sometimes people will take a moment to stop near the vending machine, drink, leave the can and be on their way.)
Here are a couple examples of our vending machine recycling bins below. Look at these little smiling cuties in the winter when they get covered in snow.
Apart from these, the easiest place to find trash cans are convenience stores. These are the typical sort of garbage bins that were once commonly available outside of convenience stores. The only thing is, these are meant for customers. (So if you do happen to buy a Fami-Chicken, you are safe, but…)
Recently, as customers have failed to sort properly or throw away large amounts of garbage from other stores, many stores have decided to move their bins indoors. If customers don’t properly toss things, it becomes the responsibility of sales staff to do the sorting, so indoor bins allow individual stores to have greater control.
How can I prepare, if I can’t count on public garbage bins?
We suggest you do what locals do! If you really need to, bring an empty plastic bag with you to hold garbage until you can take it home and sort it. Also, if you buy food or drink, eat it where you bought it! Vending machines and food stalls will have places for you to throw things out. As Japan also doesn’t have a ‘take out’ culture for leftovers, you might find less reason to carry garbage around with you. Either way, during your travels, enjoy that Japan is indeed incredibly clean! And though public cans are convenient, while here, at least there will be few places your nose will come into contact with that stinky garbage smell.