The Purpose of Inconvenience
After my friend returned from his two-week trip to Japan, I asked him about his experience. “What was the best thing? What was the worst thing?” As often in life, the pros and cons he mentioned went hand in hand: “Tokyo is one of the top three cleanest places I’ve ever been, but there are no trash cans anywhere, and that’s annoying.”
It’s true. While most big cities reduce trash cans at some point — usually after terrorist attacks where bombs and the like are hidden in them — most also eventually bring them back. But not Tokyo. After a 1995 gas attack that hurt at least 1,000 people, the Eastern metropolis binned bins, and they haven’t returned in numbers since.
Surprisingly, the lack of trash disposal opportunities never turned into a big problem. Over a quarter century later, Tokyo is still bin-less, yet also still clean. Why? Culture. In Japan, cleanliness is more than a duty. It’s a value. From school children having to clean up the classroom to store workers partaking in monthly cleaning initiatives to the elderly volunteering to keep the streets tidy, the Japanese learn self-reliance around cleaning early on and then embody it throughout their entire lives — and that’s not something that ends when a few trash cans disappear.
After the change, people simply started disposing of their litter where trash cans were available, like in restaurants, convenience stores, and near vending machines. And if none are to be found? Then they just pocket their trash and recycle it at home. By placing a slightly bigger responsibility on every individual, the country distributes the weighty task of trash management evenly, and the result is a system that works.
Given its origins in culture, it’s easy to see why such a change would never work in America, where scrubbing toilets is synonymous with “lowest rung of the social ladder.” Cleaning is dirty work to be outsourced and handed off wherever possible, not a virtue to pursue. In fact, if something isn’t easy enough to clean, why not convert it into something that creates more trash? The amount of plastic forks, bags, cups, plates, and knives, among a million other things, is staggering. If you removed trash cans in New York…