Monday, August 27, 2007

Cultural Differences in Handling Garbage

I've been curious as to how different cultures regard garbage, recycling, and other environmental issues in their country. A research article I read last night suggested that it doesn't matter whether you're from Russia, Czech Republic, India, New Zealand, Brazil, or Germany, people have the same set of beliefs and attitudes concerning the environment. That is, your concern about environmental issues may stem from one of three attitudes: 1) personal interests (i.e., my health), 2) caring for other people (i.e., children's health), and 3) caring for all living things (i.e., plants & animals). All people, no matter their country of origin, tend to fall in one of those attitudinal categories.

But what about examining people's behavior? Do these attitudes translate into pro-environmental actions? And if so, are there cultural differences in those practices?

In today's Wall Street Journal, there was a story that suggests rather dramatic cultural differences in handling waste. The article focused on a reporter's personal account of handling her garbage in Japan. Not knowing the cultural norms in her area, she inadvertantly placed her trash in her neighbor's garbage spot. Not a big deal, right? WRONG! This is what she found posted on a door one morning:
As she was soon to discover, Japan handles its garbage very seriously. For example, residents must sort their garbage into 34 categories. (Don't worry about remembering all those categories, there's a 48-page booklet that explains the garbage rules.) Residents must also place a blue net over their garbage so that crows don't eat the garbage. And garbage must be thrown away in clear plastic bags so that people know who's recycling and who isn't.

But what was most striking to me was the peer pressure that residents placed on each other. (Case in point: The public shame this reporter felt when she read the note posted on the door.) It appears as though folks in Japan have a shared belief that it takes teamwork to handle garbage properly. And they make sure everyone is doing their part to make this system work efficiently.

From a cultural standpoint, there seems to be significant differences between Japan and the U.S. when it comes to handling waste. I imagine we could learn a lesson or two from the Japanese. As one of the quotes in the booklet stated, "Resources when separated, but garbage when not separated. Think more!"

1 comment:

Experimentaholic said...

Another thing that is interesting is that trash bags are transparent in Japan so that other people can see whether or not you are following the law properly. When I was in Japan, one of the things I noticed though was the Japanese way of dealing with problems in a creative way. For instance...crows are a big problem in Japan, because they are louder and larger than American crows (about twice as large). They get into the bags and tear it apart, leaving trash everywhere - I have actually seen crows do this! Crows don't go out at night, so in Kyoto, trash collection occured between 8 - 12 had to put your trash out after 8:00, and if you did so before not only would you get the scorn of your neighbors (who don't want trash all over the place) you'd get a ticket as well. But the great thing about being a baka gaijin ("dumb outside person") is that you can always plea innocence due to the difficulty of the language - playing dumb has gotten me out of many a tight spot in Japan. And knowing how to say I'm sorry..."Gomen Nasai"