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Thanks to an Intense Recycling Plan, this Japanese Town Nears 'Zero Waste'

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Though there once was a time when an environmentally conscious consumer had to go out of their way to recycle a glass bottle or cardboard box, those dark days are largely over. It’s not unusual to see separate bins for trash and recyclables on busy city streets, and most municipal waste departments offer curbside collection for paper, plastics, and occasionally even electronics, appliances, or hazardous materials. However, one tiny town in southwestern Japan puts all those efforts to shame. In Kamikatsu, around 2000 residents separate their everyday disposables into 34 distinct categories for recycling, which has resulted in an incredible 80 percent reduction in waste since the innovative system was implemented in 2003. If the trend continues, town officials hope that 2020 will be the landmark year in which it officially becomes “zero-waste.”

The American system of recycling, with its seven types of plastics (only two of which are generally reusable), can be difficult enough for the average consumer to navigate. Kamikatsu’s 34-category scheme is even more complicated, requiring residents not only to identify the difference between polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyetylene (HDPE), but also to separate razors from pens, dirty diapers from sake bottles, and steel cans from the type of styrofoam packaging used to sell raw meat. Of course, this takes place only after separating out all the organic waste, which Kamikatsu residents are required to compost at home—a crucial step that discourages letting anything go to waste in the first place.

Though requiring garbage collectors to regularly pick up nearly three dozen different types of recyclables sounds like an organizational nightmare, Kamikatsu’s leaders have eschewed the problem entirely by requiring residents to deliver the recycling themselves, either to the central waste station or to a few local shops serving as middlemen.

Far from seeing their enhanced environmental responsibilities as an imposition, many residents say they appreciate the encouragement to be more conscious consumers. It was admittedly a struggle for some to adjust to such a complicated new system, which mandated not only that disposed items be distributed into 34 separate receptacles, but that they be thoroughly washed of their remaining contents. This additional step in particular left some 40 percent of poll respondents in 2008 slightly unhappy with the overall waste policy, but the town has come to accept both the pros and cons. As one local woman tells the BBC, “I have to do it every day; it's certainty a bit of work. But it's a good idea to send things back to the earth so I support it.”

Perhaps taking inspiration from the measurable good a more conservationist waste policy has done for their town, Kamikatsu residents have found other ways to turn their trash into treasure. A “circular” shop provides a venue for neighbors to donate unwanted, but still usable, products for others to take freely, and crafty local women have grown skilled at turning old kimonos, flags, and linens into bags, teddy bears, and stylish new garments. In Kamikatsu, what might have been a failed government experiment has become a way of life.

[h/t GOOD]

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Air Quality in American National Parks and Big Cities Is Roughly the Same
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National parks usually have more vegetation, wildlife, and open spaces than urban areas, but the two don't look much different when it comes to air quality. As City Lab reports, a new study published in Science Advances found that U.S. national parks and the nation's largest cities have comparable ozone levels.

For their research, scientists from Iowa State University and Cornell University looked at air pollution data collected over 24 years from 33 national parks and the 20 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Their results show that average ozone concentrations were "statistically indistinguishable" between the two groups from 1990 to 2014.

On their own, the statistics look grim for America's protected areas, but they're actually a sign that environmental protection measures are working. Prior to the 1990s, major cities had higher ozone concentrations than national parks. At the start of the decade, the federal government passed the Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments in an effort to fight urban air pollution, and ozone levels have been declining ever since.

The average ozone in national parks did increase in the 1990s, but then in 1999 the EPA enacted the Regional Haze Rule, which specifically aims to improve air quality and visibility in national parks. Ozone levels in national parks are now back to the levels they were at in 1990.

Ground-level ozone doesn't just make America's national parks harder to see: It can also damage plants and make it difficult for human visitors to breathe. Vehicles, especially gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, are some of the biggest producers of the pollutant.

[h/t City Lab]

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India's Supreme Court Demands That the Taj Mahal Be Restored or Demolished
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The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable monuments on Earth, but over the years it's started to look less like its old self. Smog and insect droppings are staining the once pure-white marble exterior an unseemly shade of yellow. Now, The Art Newspaper reports that India's Supreme Court has set an ultimatum: It's threatening to shut down or demolish the building if it's not restored to its former glory.

Agra, the town where the Taj Mahal is located, has a notorious pollution problem. Automobile traffic, factory smoke, and the open burning of municipal waste have all contributed to the landmark's increasing discoloration. Insects and acid rain also pose a threat to the facade, which is already crumbling away in some parts.

India's highest court now says the country's central government must seek foreign assistance to restore the UNESCO World Heritage Site if it's to remain open. Agra's state of Uttar Pradesh has taken some steps to reduce pollution in recent years, such us banning the burning of cow dung, which produces heavy brown carbon. In 2015, India's Supreme Court ordered all wood-burning crematoriums near the Taj Mahal to be swapped for electric ones.

But the measures haven't done enough to preserve the building. A committee led by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpu reportedly plans to investigate the exact sources of pollution in the area, a process that will take about four months. The Supreme Court plans check in on the status of site every day from July 31.

Air pollution isn't the only factor damaging the Taj Mahal. It was constructed near the Yamuna River in the 17th century, and as the water gradual dries up, the ground beneath the structure is shifting. If the trend continues it could lead to the building's total collapse.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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