expo 2005 photo essays
- weekly report from the World Exposition in Aichi, Japan

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Week thirteen (June 19, 2005)


It goes without saying that since the theme of the Aichi Expo is "Nature's Wisdom" (shizen no eichi), a special focus is laid on proper disposal and recycling of the waste generated by the pavilions and visitors. In regards of waste treatment, Japan has made a huge progress in the last few years, but the hosting of the World Exposition without a doubt posed a good opportunity to once again indoctrinate the Japanese people about the need for garbage separation.

· The shift to ecological consciousness since the 1980s

Germany has been a major pioneer in garbage separation and recycling since the 1980s. The ecological movement especially caught wind in their sails after several ecological disasters in the mid-eighties, when the movement Greenpeace undertook numerous spectacular actions to heighten public awareness of ecological matters. How far this level has risen in Germany can probably measured by the fact that the policital party of the Greens, founded in the early eighties, now is forming the government with the social democrats (SPD) and gets election results of up to 10% in some counties.

Two major events contributing to this were the nuclear meltdown of Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986 and the disastrous oil spill of the tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989 which leaked millions of gallons of oil into the sea in Alaska. In the case of Chernobyl, the nuclear radiation of the reactor reached as far as West Europe that winter, and you can maybe imagine that as a child being told not to go play outside because of the danger of the nuclear wind was quite scary and impressive. The massively distributed television images and photographs of dying birds and sea animals encrusted in the oil slick from the tanker crash did the rest to create a new conciousness about the issues of pollution and destruction of natural habitat.

This has also been achieved through a major shift in education. When we grew up in the 80ies, the ecological awareness about animal protection, industrial emissions, acid rain, recycling etc. reached unprecedented levels. Children were raised along the lines of "If you toss away this plastic wrapper, small penguin babies in Antarctica will painfully die". So for example throwing away garbage out of your car or train window or on the street, as is usual in many parts of the world, is a thing I have never done and hardly ever seen - you "just don't do that" in Germany.

In Germany we are already going as far as this: collecting recyclable plastic in the "Gelber Sack" ("yellow bag"), which is usually collected every two weeks...

...and separating glass bottles.

Garbage separation is a thing that foreigners coming to Germany often marvel at. Every household separates biodegradable waste, plastics, paper and glass bottles and puts the rest in the "other" garbage bin. Paper and biodegradables have their own trash cans which are sometimes shared by a few apartments or houses, whereas plastics are collected in yellow plastic bags and picked up separately (this system is known as the "Duales System" or "Grüner Punkt"). Glass bottles and since last year also drink cans (!) hold a deposit which is refunded when you return them to the shop or chain store where you bought them, whereas glass and metal waste and used batteries have to be disposed of at designated containers. Quite a big part of this has to be done personally, which some people find a hassle; it's no problem when you are used to it though, and it actually does make a big difference.

· Garbage disposal in Japan

This advanced stance has been raising interest in Japan for a while now, and there have been so-called "garbage research groups" coming to Germany to study the German system. These people make homestays with familiies to observe "how the household deals with garbage separation" and also visit schools, recycling yards, water treatment plants and so forth. I actually worked as a translator for one of these groups who came from Miyazaki to my home town - mostly older people who pay for the journey themselves because they really are interested in the German way of treating garbage.

However, regarding waste treatment Japan has already overtaken Germany in various aspects. This is a fairly recent development but so thoroughly enforced that you (as every so often) get the feeling the Japanese have been doing it this way ever since. This is true of the personal household waste separation, but even more so if you take a look at the way it is done on the Expo site.

Garbage on-site is collected in twelve different trash cans, ranging from plasctics and bottles to paper and throw-away chopsticks (I kid you not). Usually you also have an Expo volunteer there to help you separate the waste correctly. The pavilions separate waste in huge plastic bags which are designated by alphabetical letters, e. g. "G" is biodegradable, "B" is burnable waste etc. You start to wonder if they go all the way from A to Z, maybe including "U" for "evening discount admission tickets", "W" for "PET bottle wrap-around plastic" to "Z" for "pocket lint". Update: According to the Asahi newspaper, the waste is separated in 9 classes on-site which is then fine-selected at the treatment center into 17 different types of garbage, so I wasn't too far off the mark!

As of yet, we do not have twelve different garbage cans..

...and none for throw-away chopsticks

As always, maintaining this system is somewhat of a small hassle for everybody, but you need to view the advantages in the final stages of the waste treatment process: if you don't separate from the beginning, you would need additional people doing the job sorting out the garbage later on, which by then would be wet, dirty and mostly unusable for recycling. Of course it would be easier to throw all waste in one big container (as obviously was the case at some previous events from the stories I was told), but this age has passed, especially here in Japan.

· Japanese smokers lose

Another big topic is smoking vs non-smoking. The Expo site proper of course is non-smoking with designated smoking areas few and far between. The same goes for the entry walkways and the Linimo train station. This kind of setup might seem natural in this age, but in Japan this is (as in Germany) a rather recent development. When I came here four years ago, smoking in train stations and on platforms was still allowed. In the course of a new "public awareness program" about smoking, within only a few months a smoking area was first established, then consequently moved to the furthest corner of the platform and finally completely abolished just like that. In Germany, train stations now are consecutively becoming non-smoking, but it is a pain-staking and slow process to convince the "ever-smoking Europeans" of the advantages of a smoke-free environment. Such a swift and smooth transition as in Japan is out of the question; this is another peculiarity in Japan: once it is publicly announced that "we should all do this and that", people usually follow suit - it is rather seldom that large groups of the population rebel and protest against this kind of regulations.

Non-smoking restaurants or bars like in America or (more recently) Italy and other European countries are unthinkable as of yet in Germany. You can bet that smokers in Germany will fight for the status quo, and it will still take a while to ban smoking from publicly used places. So changing a restaurant from smoking to non-smoking overnight would probably be doomed for failure and could be considered suicide for the business.

Not so in Japan. Our service staff decided last week that it would be a lot easier to have the restaurant non-smoking, because that would abolish the need of handing out ashtrays and cleaning afterwards. Also, the air inside the restaurant would be somewhat improved. So what was born out of a freak after-work idea ("Let's just try this tomorrow") was enforced the next day without any problem. Nobody bothered to even put up a sign announcing the change, the staff simply removed the ashtrays and informed inquiring customers about the smoking prohibition. So far, only about one or two people protested against this change - and you need to keep in mind that there is quite a few people who come to the German restaurant over and over again. So even the group of customers who smoked the last time they came and are now told "no smoking" just say like "Oh really, OK", and that's it - no complaints, no persistent inquiries, no one lighting up in spite, nothing. I must say that is pretty remarkable and also tells you a lot about the Japanese people's mind.

· Next week: Around the block in Nagoya