From Norbury to Tokyo: A Litter Picking Journey
Recently, I have had the opportunity to travel to Japan. My time there allowed me to gain valuable insights into the issue of litter and how it is managed in a country that is known for its cleanliness.
In this article, I will share my observations and experiences, and discuss what we can learn from Japan's approach to tackling litter. I will share some pictures to make this more interesting!
It's important to note that Tokyo likely has a higher budget for litter management compared to where we live, which gave me the opportunity to closely observe the efforts of volunteers, individuals, and shopkeepers, as well as the available infrastructure. Despite the differences in budget, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Japan's approach to litter prevention and waste management that can be applied in any community and to us personally (Myself for instance), regardless of their cashflow.
After all, being from Litter Free Norbury, it is something I could not have missed. (I will always try to do so in any travels from now on, even if it’s in Weymouth.)
Initially, I was struck by a few notable differences from my experiences in London. [Picture 1] For one, my checked bags arrived before I did at the baggage claim, a pleasant surprise. The punctuality of Japan's public transport system also stood out, with trains running on time and not cancelled. Oh, and the Uber Eats delivery driver told me it was too cold for me to wait for him outside and advised for me to stay in the hotel reception (Food at 11pm). (The first country where I did not have to worry about services of any kind.)
What really caught my attention was the culture of pedestrian safety, where people strictly adhere to traffic rules even in the absence of any imminent danger. This was a stark contrast to the more relaxed attitude towards jaywalking I'm accustomed to in London. These observations gave me an insight into the Japanese attention to detail and respect for rules, which extended to other aspects of their society, including their approach to litter management. (It is to note that Jaywalking seems illegal in Japan, and you can get fined up to around 120 British Pounds. [google])
Prior to my visit, I had the pleasure of getting in touch with the Litter Samurai (Gomi Hiroi Samurai), a unique group in Tokyo dedicated to litter picking with a twist - using long litter pickers (tongs) as if they were sword fighting. To my delight, they graciously invited me to join them for a morning litter-picking session near the Ikebukuro station in the north of Tokyo, before my other meetings. As I walked around the area, I couldn't help but notice the litter problem [Picture 2], with trash scattered around and takeaway food packaging strewn about. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon two of the Samurais conducting a TikTok live event and was welcomed as a guest, armed with my "western" litter picker (which I had packed for the occasion). Together, we tackled mostly cans and takeaway food containers - I in my regular litter picking fashion, and they with a flair for theatrics that added to the fun. [Picture 3] I also noticed some city worker (I believe) doing their bit. [Picture 4]
While litter picking with the Litter Samurai group, I had the opportunity to discuss the root cause of Japan's litter problem with two of their members, as their director filmed the video. They explained that much of the litter issue in Japan stems from people buying food and drink to consume outside, and then carelessly discarding their trash on the streets. However, the Litter Samurai don't place the blame on individuals, instead viewing littering as a societal "sin." They explained that the amount of litter has increased in Tokyo since the pandemic, and that they are doing their part to combat it in their unique way.
I was amazed to see the popularity of the Litter Samurai group. As we collected trash with our long tongs, many passersby stopped to thank the group and some online inquired about my French name (Guillaume, pronounced "Gee Home"). I was surprised to learn that the Samurais have around 700k followers on social media (Tiktok). It's clear that their distinctive samurai attire and unique approach to litter picking help them stand out in the crowd, capturing the attention of those who may otherwise ignore the problem of littering. Their efforts are making a positive impact, encouraging people to take notice and hopefully, to take action to reduce litter in their own communities.
I also had the chance to explore the bustling district of Shibuya after a long day. Although I noticed a bit of litter around, the footfall (people walking around) was nothing compared to Norbury. [Picture 5] The particular street I walked along, Takeshita Street, was teeming with thousands of people, which made me a bit nervous and overwhelmed. However, what impressed me was the pride that shopkeepers took in keeping their storefronts clear of litter, often picking up trash multiple times an hour. They also have litter bins by their shop (Something our business owners could learn from them). Despite the belief that there are no bins in Japan, I discovered that there are actually quite a few, particularly some well-maintained Big Belly Bins [Picture 6] (We have these in Norbury, but they do not look so good as not really maintained I think.) usually located next to drink and food vending machines, as well as in parks. Some of these bins are usually sorted for specific waste types such as general waste, lids, cups, and cardboard, highlighting Japan's advanced recycling system. [Picture 7] This is a sharp contrast to the lack of recycling infrastructure I've seen in London, demonstrating that we have much to learn from Japan's waste management practices.
To cap off my day in Tokyo, I visited the bustling Shinjuku station and its surrounding areas, including the Kabukicho (red light district). Similar to Shibuya, the streets were packed with thousands of people from all walks of life, enjoying the many restaurants, fancy hotels, and clubs. One unique aspect of Kabukicho is the presence of men and women for hire, who line the streets with a price tag on a sign, advertising their services. However, what caught my attention was a particular group of these individuals who were litter picking their very own street. [Picture 8] I also noticed passersby picking up trash and disposing of it in the nearby bins. It was evident that the entire street ecosystem in Japan has been educated on the importance of cleanliness and litter prevention.
Indeed, Japan's education system seems to emphasize these values from an early age [google]. It made me wonder if such an education system could be adopted in the UK to help address the litter problem in our own country.
During my stay in the quieter area of Daiba in Tokyo, where my hotel was located near the beach, I observed something interesting. There were individuals on bicycles with large bags filled with plastic containers and cans, picking up any recyclables they came across. I was impressed by their dexterity in manoeuvring their bicycles with such bulky bags of recyclables. When I returned to Norbury, I tried this approach myself and found it to be an efficient way to move from one area to another while litter picking. As a side note, a fellow cyclist in Norbury even thanked me for my efforts, which felt great!
On the subject of fly tipping, I did not witness any. I have a feeling that people over there do not over buy things, and that waste disposal companies have a very high standard. From what I have read these have a fee. [google].
To sum up, my visit to Japan was a fantastic and productive experience that showed me a society that actively tackles litter as a personal responsibility, rather than solely relying on the government to solve the problem. This reinforced my belief that our actions in Norbury are crucial and that we should continue to work together to make a difference. From shopkeepers to environmental groups, litter workers, and individuals who take even the smallest steps to keep their surroundings clean, everyone has a role to play. I particularly think schools to consider implementing a litter and cleaning program to show children the importance of a clean environment. It may take time, but it is an investment in our future.
Upon returning to London, I encountered some familiar frustrations, such as delayed baggage and delivery errors (Uber Eats grrr !!), but I still love Norbury and consider it my home, no matter what. I will continue to try to keep it as clean as possible.
Happy to be back!
PS – Youtube channel of the Gomi Hiroi Samurais : https://www.youtube.com/@user-cl3pt7ju9i
PSPS – When I write Google, that means I just googled, and facts stated should be double-checked.