Yes, the town of Kamikatsu, which is on the Western Japanese island of Shikoku, is small — just under 1,600 people. But an experiment in going zero waste has shown the world that our garbage has far-reaching effects, and not just on our environment.

It all started when the town, which is surrounded by rice fields and forests, built a new incinerator almost 20 years ago. But almost immediately, the incinerator was determined to be a health risk due to the number of dioxins it released into the air when garbage was burned in it. It was too expensive to send waste to other towns, so locals had to come up with a new plan.

From this conundrum, the Zero Waste Academy was born. According to their website, "The Zero Waste Academy provides services to change: the perspectives & actions of people; ownership and usage of things; and social systems, to turn waste into valuables."

Now Kamikatsu residents separate their waste into 45 different categories, including the basics like paper, plastics, metal, glass, furniture and food waste — but then there are many subcategories too. Paper gets sorted out into newspaper, cardboard, coated paper cartons, shredded paper and more. Metals get separated by type.

"By doing this level of segregation, we can actually turn it over to the recycler knowing that they will treat it as a high-quality resource," Akira Sakano, the founder of Zero Waste Academy, told World Ecoomic Forum.

From chore to community

In the beginning, it wasn't easy to convince local residents to do all this work, and there was some pushback. Communication was the key to changing minds; they held classes and ran an information campaign. "While there was still a bit of conflict, part of the community started to understand the context and cooperate, so the municipal office decided to start the segregated collection system. Once the residents saw that it had started, they realized that it wasn't that difficult," Sakano said. After that initial education period, most residents came on board. Many now separate their waste into general categories at home, and then do a more refined segregation at the station.

This is all great news for waste reduction of course (the town hasn't quite gotten to their goal of zero-waste yet, but aims to by 2020), but it has also had some unexpected social benefits as well. Like much of Japan, Kamikatsu's population is aging, and about 50 percent of the locals are elderly. The fact that the whole community takes their trash in to be recycled has created a hub of local action and interaction between generations.

That idea has been purposefully expanded to include a circular shop where household goods are dropped off and others can take them, and a tableware "library" where people can borrow extra cups, glasses, silverware and plates for celebrations (eliminating the need for single-use disposables). A craft center takes in old fabrics and sewing supplies — including old kimonos — and locals make new items from them.

"[The elderly] see this not as a waste-collection service, but an opportunity to socialize with the younger generation and to chat. When we visit them, they prepare lots of food and we stay with them for a while, we ask how they are," Sakano told the World Economic Forum.

Sakano wants to see her community's dual success — reducing waste and creating community — expanded elsewhere.

She says that people being more involved with their waste, seeing where it goes and understanding what happens to it, is key to changing how we all consume. The Zero Waste Center reports on how much has been recycled, where it goes and what it's made into.

Part of changing people's relationship to consumable stuff also includes educating locals into not buying products that aren't recyclable. Sakano says the only thing standing in the way of 100 percent zero waste for her town is the fact that some manufacturers still use non-recyclable packaging and materials in their products.

Sakano says, "Products need to be designed for the circular economy, where everything is reused or recycled. These actions really need to be taken to businesses and incorporate producers, who need to consider how to deal with the product once its useful life has ended."

Sakano's ideas are truly revolutionary if you think about it. She's proving that community can be found through handling the stuff we no longer want and need. If shopping can be a relationship-building activity (which it's certainly advertised as being), why not the results of the shopping too?

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

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