Why people throw away garbage: Interview with Momona Otsuka, working at Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center “WHY”

For our 28th article, we interviewed Momona Otsuka (ID20), who engages in the administration of Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center “WHY.”

She works at Kamikatsu Tokushima, where was the first local government in Japan to declare zero-waste.

In this interview, she talks about the reason why she became interested in “zero-waste,” what zero waste center is, and her thoughts on urban development.

How people think about garbage which we usually take for granted, and why people generate so much garbage…

Read the full article to find out!

Q1. What activities did you participate in while you were a student at ICU?

My major was Public Policy and my minor was Environmental Studies, and I was particularly interested in the sustainability of rural communities. During my college years, I was a member of “ICU ELABEL”, a fair trade promotion organization. Also, I was a member of “KaWelina”, an intercollegiate hula club at the University of Tokyo, as I started dancing  hula since I was 3 years old. I also studied abroad at Linnea University in Sweden. I occasionally visited my ICU friends who studied in Finland and the UK. We shared the same interests, which was sustainability. In my senior year, I started a small collective called “Connecting Dots, Collecting Distances”, hoping to give back what I had learned through my experiences abroad to the school community. We made posters of what we had learned there and displayed them in the main building, as well as organizing talk events. We also translated a picture book about ethical consumption, “Are You Ready? The Journey to the Veiled World(じゅんびはいいかい)”. 

Here is the article about the book we translated.https://www.icu.ac.jp/news/2008211300.html

__When we hear the term “zero-waste,” I think  that we tend to strongly associate it with the image of “environment”. Why did you choose public policy as your major instead of environmental studies?

I was interested in Development Studies in the first place and I especially focused  on the problems surrounding fast-fashion even before entering ICU. When I was thinking of ways to solve inequality and social problems caused by making cheap clothes, fair trade was the first solution that came into my mind. However, my interest slowly shifted to how the import of  cheap clothes into Japan would affect the Japanese industry. Then, I learned that many textile industries in Japan are located in the rural areas and these industries are declining along with the population decrease in rural communities. Later, I learned that the clothing production in Japan is strongly connected to community and town development, which finally made me become interested in Public Policy.

__I’m often influenced by its cheapness as well so what you just said made me think about my action! 

We all wear clothes because we enjoy wearing them or making ourselves look good but we never really think that our choices of buying cheap clothes may have negative effects. I was inspired by a movie I saw when I was in high school,  “The True Cost,” and I began to think about how we could  change this problem.

__I see…is your interest in social problems of clothing the reason why you joined ICU ELABEL? 

Yes. ICU ELABLE originally started in 2015 by a senior student group, from the idea of introducing fair trade products in ICU alumni goods. They made tote bags and book covers out of fair trade organic cotton made in India to add some social good choices to the alumni goods. I found this organization when the environmental studies professor introduced ELABEL at open campus for designated school nominees before entering ICU. When I joined the team, we proposed to do a collaboration with “aizome (藍染め)”, Japanese traditional way of dyeing, to raise its awareness in the campus.


Q2. What are your current activities?

I am involved in operating KamikatsuZero Waste Centre “WHY,” a public complex that opened in Kamikatsu Town, Tokushima prefecture, in 2020. We mainly operate a hotel, and work as an interpreter and send out what Kamikatsu is doing both online and face to face to the visitors outside of town (students, business people, families, local government, media, etc).

Kamikatsu-chou Zero Waste Centre is a public complex in the town, managed together by the private sector and the town hall. This facility was established because of the serious problem of depopulation of the town, which now has the population of only under 1450 people in the town.

Thinking of the sustainability of Kamikatsu to keep itself as Kamikatsu, we thought that we could recognize and advertise the zero waste action as one of Kamikatsu’s values because it is the first town which started this action in Japan. This gave us the idea to create a place where people can gather and learn from each other. Kamikatsu Zero Waste Centre was originally the town’s garbage station and there was already the Kuru Kuru shop.”However,to expand this function outside of town as well, we added a hotel, an event hall and an office space called the laboratory. 

__Is the shape of building,“?,” related to the name Kamikatsu-chou Zero Waste Centre ”WHY” ?

The design of the “?” expresses the concept of “WHY”, asking “why does Kamikatsu have to be the place for zero waste action?” to Kamikatsu itself and “why throw trash away?” to society as well. In order to make this concept, a company called “Transjet General Office” was involved. In addition, the architecture of this facility was designed by Hiroshi Nakamura of NAP Architects and the team designed the centre focusing on human conduct and behavior. In Kamikatsu, people bring their own trash with their cars as there are no collection trucks running in the town. Therefore, when we were thinking about the design of the garbage station, we thought about the flow of cars and the space for stocking collected items, and we decided that a horseshoe-shaped design would make it easier for cars to get in and out of the station. Then, at the time of deciding the location of the hotel, we found out that we needed more space, and although it was all a coincidence, we thought it was a good idea that “if the concept was “WHY” then why don’t we make the building “?” as well”.

Q3. Why was it able to launch this kind of activity in Kamikatsu when there are many other rural communities with the problem of depopulation?

It all started from the crisis that Kamikatsu did not have the capacity to dispose of garbage.

Kamikatsu used to burn garbage in the air but as it was prohibited by law, the town decided to change its garbage disposal system to recycling. A sorting system was introduced in 1997, and garbage stations were set up to collect resources in a bring-your-own-bag style, with the aim of reducing the amount of garbage and the burden of collection at the same time. In 1998, two incinerators were introduced but it was caught by the dioxin law and had to be closed. With the problem of not being able to dispose of waste in the town, they changed the approach to reduce the amount of waste to be disposed of as much as possible, and began to thoroughly collect resources. Especially as Kamikatsu was a mountainous area with poor accessibility and a small municipality with limited financial resources, the town had to do something about the waste generated. As a result, various initiatives developed, and as the staff researched overseas, they were able to connect with an environmental NGO called “Greenpeace Japan”, which introduced them to Paul Coconette, a doctor of chemistry who was promoting zero-waste in the United States. In 2003, Paul came to Japan to talk about zero-waste, and two months later, the Zero-Waste Declaration was announced. So, Zero-Waste was an afterthought, and the sense of crisis that we had to do something about garbage in a small town led us to this activity.

__It is incredible that this project continued and developed from the stage of having no proper system to burn trash to an amazing action with great care to the environment! Do you think the local government was enthusiastic about the project?

Yes, I think so. The contribution of the municipality staff was very significant and the local people were very supportive as well. In addition, the mayor of the town at that time was very conscious of environmental problems and formulated policies for it. Also, a NPO called “Zero Waste Academy ” was organized to promote the activity. The NPO’s executive directors have been women who moved from outside the town and have been actively involved in the activities of the NPO. The former president of the NPO had served as co-chair of the Davos Forum, and I believe that by sending messages of Zero Waste in English, the awareness of Zero Waste has spread overseas as well.

Q4. When did you start your activity?

I moved to Kamikatsu in the spring of 2020 and started working.

Q5. It must have been difficult to decide to move your entire living base from Kanagawa to Kamikatsu, but were you hesitant or anxious about making such a big change?

Of course there were. I sought many opinions from the adults around me, but the final decision was mine.  I thought that starting up this new center when it was being built would be something that not everyone could experience, so it would be connected to my strengths later. Also, the fact that there is a hotel was a very important point. It could create opportunities to interact with more than 1,500 people in a town of less than 1,500 people. I thought it was an advantage, and I felt that the possibilities were stronger.

Also, since I had originally come here as a student, I knew the local residents and the people on the brewery team in the town. So,  I thought that unlike jumping into a completely unknown place, I could live with people in the community I knew.

__Did you see any changes in your mindset after moving to Kamikatsu Town, which  made a zero-waste declaration and achieved an 80% recycling rate?

Recently, I feel that I am still only a consumer. Right now, all I do is buy things and use them. However, I really feel that it would be great if I could create more things by myself in my own life. I’m planning to create a shared house with friends who moved to the area. There are many old private houses in the countryside, including many in Kamikatsu, but it is difficult to find an environment where people can live in. I think it is a very rare experience to create a lifestyle on your own. In Kamikatsu-cho, there are carpenters and farmers who make their own living. When I came into contact with this kind of self-sufficient lifestyle, I began to think that it would be nice if I could have that kind of feeling and perspective as well.

Q6. What made you decide to actually start your activities?

I became interested in Zero-Waste because I felt uncomfortable with the mass production and mass consumption of clothing. I also decided to go to Kamikatsu-cho Town after learning about it through an architect who was involved in the center.

Q7. How did you feel when you started your activity?

I had a strong motivation to stay neutral.

__What does  the perspective of neutral come from?

One of the unique features of the Zero Waste Center is that it is a space that is a combination of a space used by the town for collecting garbage, sorting it, and collecting resources, a hotel where people from outside the town stay, an event hall, an office space, and a Kuru Kuru Shop. It is important to listen to the voices of Kamikatsu-cho residents, but it is also important to consider what the community should be like and how to create a place where people can gather from the perspective of those outside the town, for making it a place where people can come from both inside and outside the town. When I started, and even now, I think it would be good if I could stand in a neutral position, from the standpoint of what the community should be like and how we should create a place where people can gather.

Q8. You work for sending out information to visitors coming from outside Kamikatsu-cho, do you actually have many opportunities to get involved with not only with people from outside the town, but also with local people?

Yes. The town office directly manages the trash stations that the residents are involved in, so we are not actually providing support for trash disposal, but of course, local residents come to the reuse store, and that is where the interaction takes place. Also, I want to know what the local people are feeling while living in the area, so I participate in local communities. For example, there are terraced rice paddies in each area, but as the population continues to depopulate, it becomes difficult to maintain the terraced rice paddies. My staff and I are considering what we can do together first, such as renting one rice paddy under such circumstances, growing rice, and interacting with local people. I have only just arrived and there are many things I don’t understand, but I value the opportunity to first get in touch with the lifestyle of the people in the town.

__What form does the joint-stock company take?

​​​​​​It was created by the members who launched the Zero Waste Center project as a company to manage the Zero Waste Center in Kamikatsu-cho. Our main business is the operation of the hotel, and we also give lectures and handle inspection tours.

In the future, we would like to work with the people of the town and companies coming from outside the town to create projects here, rather than just sending out information. We would like to visualize what we think is needed in the community and how we can successfully combine ideas from outside the town in the future.

__How many guests does the hotel accomodate annually?

It has been three years since we opened now, and although we opened in the Corona Disaster, we had about 1,200 guests in the first year and 1,500 in the second year. We would like to provide an opportunity for various people to come to our hotel without becoming over-touristic. We are a small hotel with only four rooms, but we have people who come with a purpose, and I believe this is due to the efforts that the people of the town have made over and over again.

In addition to the hotels in this center, there are also guest houses and hot spring resorts in the town, so I believe that more people came than the number I mentioned earlier. It is interesting to meet people from various backgrounds, including students, companies (manufacturers, developers, etc.), local government officials, and architects. The hotel received the “Architectural Institute of Japan Award,” the most prestigious award in Japan, and many people who are interested in design also come to the event.

During the busy season, we also have tourists come, some for seminar camps, and recently we have received inquiries from overseas.

Q9. When do you find it rewarding?

I feel it when reunions and encounters are fostered through the operation and transmission of the hotel, and when guests tell me how their lifestyles have changed as a result of their stay in Kamikatsu-cho.

Q10. What have you learned or realized from your activities, and what would you like ICU students to know? Also, if you have any book or movie recommendations for ICU students about your field of activity, please let us know.

We want people to know that zero-waste is a way to connect people, communities, and nature.

“The True Cost” is a documentary film that I saw in high school and was shocked by.

___When did you actually feel such a connection between people, community, and nature?

If you look at the term “zero-waste” as it is, I think it means curbing the garbage generation, but what I actually feel when I come to Kamikatsu-cho is how we can recognize the “relationship that does not disappear”. When we think about why garbage is generated, there are many factors such as being unnecessary, dirty, or broken. However,  the current situation is that it is easily turned them into garbage. I believe that by facing the environment and thinking about our relationship to the things we use in our daily lives, we can change the way we face the things we use around us in our daily lives.

When I reflect on my life in Kamikatsu, I often buy vegetables at the farmers’ market, which is a five-minute walk from the Zero Waste Center. Vegetables grown by local people are sold there, and the producers’ names are written on them, so you know where and who is growing them. When you give away your garbage at the garbage station, you can also see what the garbage becomes and how much it costs to dispose of. Garbage is separated in a relationship with the community.

When I lived in Kanagawa, I often lived in face-to-face relationships in my community, but when I go to Tokyo, I often spend time surrounded by people I don’t know. Our lives are made up of many different kinds of relationships, and I think that by respecting such relationships, some of them will last for a long time.

I also think it is important to note that zero-waste is not a goal. A former executive director of the Zero-Waste Academy once told me something impressive: “Zero-waste is not a goal, it is a means to an end. I think it is important to adopt it as one axis to improve our lives.

___I also tend to take it as a goal to reduce garbage to zero if I only hear “zero-waste,” but when I think of it as a means to an end, I feel that I can be positive about it.

Yes, many of our guests think that they are not allowed to take out the trash during their stay, and of course it is important, but I think that alone would be distressing and that it would be better to incorporate a visible relationship, such as who made the clothes I am wearing now. By doing so, I think the relationship will continue as a result.

Q11. Is there any possibility of applying this to other areas such as Tokyo?

I believe there is. There are actually four local governments in Japan that declared zero-waste. There are also some that are working on similar initiatives without declaring, and there are more than 100 municipalities in the world that have declared. New York and San Francisco have also declared and are working on it, and the concept itself should be adopted wherever you go. Instead of living in a short disposable cycle of make, use, throw away, I think that the very idea of how to change to a long life is something that should be incorporated into the local community, and will lead to circulation within the community.

For example, in San Francisco, there are three types of separation, one of which is composting, and there seems to be a system to create a compost center to circulate the waste.

Q12. What is your appeal or message to society?

I would like people to keep asking “why do we throw garbage away?” and  “why Kamikatsu continues its zero-waste policy?”

I think this is connected to ICU’s critical thinking, but instead of garbage as something that is thrown away as a matter of course, I would like to ask “Why is it thrown away? Why is garbage created?” you can see the social issues behind it. In my case, it was clothes, but I believe that if you observe familiar things carefully, you will see a world that you could not see before. I think that as the resolution to various things increases, actions that everyone can take will also be brought.

The Zero Waste Center does not have the answers, but I think of it as a stay-and-find experience where everyone shares what they are doing in Kamikatsu, and from there, they can think about it on their own.

Each town has its own unique approaches, but I think it would be interesting if the program could be an opportunity for people to think about what they can do in their own town, starting from the question of why Kamikatsu is doing this sort of action.

Q13. Please tell us what you would like to do and what challenges you would like to take on in the future!

As an operating company of the center, I would like to enjoy communicating the issues in Kamikatsu-cho and helping find solutions while fostering collaboration.

As an individual, I would like to create a share house in an old private house and turn it into a center for exchange. I would like to foster a place where people can reduce waste, connect with the community, and create a lifestyle with others.

____It seems difficult to communicate negative things like challenges in a fun way, but is there anything you keep in mind when doing so?

I have my own dilemmas, but I tell it as it is. I think it is important to be honest and say, “This is how I feel now,” and also to have respect for the local people. I am still learning.






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