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Bottom-up approach works in Okinawa offering Pacific islands new waste management options

NAHA, Okinawa — Japan sports the world’s third biggest economy and an efficiency that borders on excessive. But even in this land of high-technology and precision, government agencies can be unresponsive to emerging problems, a group of journalists from the Pacific on a tour of Japan heard Sunday in Okinawa.

Waste management was a problem largely ignored on Okinawa in the 1980s and 1990s, said Hiroshi Kogachi, president of the Okinawa Citizens Recycling Movement.

“Our funding is not large,” he said. “But we have passion.” That passion produced a model waste management and recycling program in Okinawa that the Japanese government is now promoting around the world.

In the Pacific, solid waste management has been under-funded and low-priority, with much of the recent improvements in urban solid waste management the result of collaboration with donor-funded initiatives.

Growing urban populations living on crowded islands caused unsightly and unhealthy mountains of garbage, a problem particularly noticeable on low-lying atolls that have little space for landfills.

In the Marshall Islands, the unfenced and uncovered city dump on Ebeye Island doubles as the community’s baseball field.

In the country’s capital, it wasn’t until the Majuro Atoll Waste Company was established that the government began to get a grip on the waste problem as the first refuse collection system was implemented.

Over the past five years, the Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA has funded a major recycling and waste management assistance project on 14 Pacific islands.

“Handling waste is a big issue for Pacific islands,” said Masayoshi Ono, JICA’s country officer for Pacific and Southeast Asia Division.

“The project has shown how the volume of waste can be reduced and managed.” JICA is now embarking on a second five-year solid waste management scheme to strengthen the capacity of island countries to handle waste.

But in the early 1990s in Okinawa, said Kogachi, “nobody shared my interest in waste management. Our island is small, but we were facing a serious waste problem.”

Hiroshi Kogachi, president of the Okinawa Citizens Recycling Movement, discusses the successful waste separation program used in Okinawa and being promoted in the Pacific islands.  Photo by Floyd K. Takeuchi/Waka PhotosHiroshi Kogachi, president of the Okinawa Citizens Recycling Movement, discusses the successful waste separation program used in Okinawa and being promoted in the Pacific islands. Photo by Floyd K. Takeuchi/Waka Photos

The 2,200 kilometer (1,300 mile) distance from Tokyo didn’t help get attention to the problem as the building of infrastructure for waste management lagged behind the rest of Japan, he said.

Garbage piled up outside apartment buildings, spilling onto sidewalks and streets.

He showed a photo of kitchen waste, cans, bottles, boxes and appliances piled around a city government sign warning residents that illegal dumping would result in fines.

“This scene was the same all over Okinawa,” he said.

The Okinawa Citizens Recycling Movement began pushing for change, proposing various projects to Naha’s city government to reduce waste through aggressive recycling.

“When these were rejected for political reasons, we decided to take our own action,” Kogachi said. The bottom-up approach worked. Their community volunteers solicited business sponsorship, launched public education campaigns in the media and schools about recycling, and set up a collection system for separating cans, bottles, newspapers and other recyclables.

Government officials initially refused to buy into the waste separation and recycling program, saying it would take many years to change people’s attitudes about dumping garbage, Kogachi said.

“We conducted a campaign to introduce separate collection and recycling to ordinary citizens,” he said.

Five years of grassroots efforts saw the citizens group collecting up to three tons of recyclable garbage daily.

Recycling companies existed on Okinawa, but were limited to handling World War II materials.

“At first they were skeptical of our recycling plan,” said Kogachi. “But over time, they became more enthusiastic, providing trucks and human resources to assist the collection of recyclable waste.”

This action by local residents finally won over government officials to the concept. “After five years, the municipal government decided to introduce separate collection of waste and we handed the program over to the city,” he said.

With Okinawa’s waste program under control, JICA engaged Kogachi to work in Vietnam, Tonga and the Caribbean to share the method for refuse management.

Key to resolving Okinawa’s garbage problems and those in the Pacific islands is gaining the understanding of citizens, businesses and government officials that much of what is thrown away has value.

His first visit to Tonga in 2011 showed that “precious resources were just being thrown away as garbage,” he said.

Because transportation to Asian and other recycle centers is costly from remote Pacific islands, Kogachi said it is important to make sure separation of different recyclables is done properly to maximize financial return.

Vehicle mufflers, computer motherboards, mobile phones and air-conditioners all contain rare metals of high value. “Knowledge of rare metals enhances recycling value,” he said.

Training supported by JICA and delivered by Kogachi and other experts from Japan have educated island waste management workers so they know how to collect valuable items from consumer waste, Kogachi said.

Ultimately, to implement effective and sustainable recycling programs that reduce the waste stream going into landfills in Okinawa and Pacific islands, the “one way logistics” of the modern business import system has to change, he said. “We have to change from businesses selling products that the consumer buys and then throws away,” Kogachi said.

“Producers” — businesses making and importing goods for sale — have a responsibility. “The problem cannot be solved by citizens alone,” he said. “A sustainable society requires citizens and businesses to fulfill their responsibilities.”

The Okinawa Citizens Recycling Movement showed the power of bottom-up action from the community. The organization’s recycling action strategy is beginning to make some headway in the Pacific through ongoing exchanges between Japanese waste and recycling experts like Kogachi and their Pacific island counterparts.