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]