Recycling Revolution in Japan: Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Centre and Waste Free Hotel

Why do consumable products need to create so much waste? Are we stuck in a state of inertia, throwing things away that could be put to good use? How can we affect change?

These are all thought provoking questions posed by Kamikatsu’s Zero Waste Centre and Waste Free Hotel, quite literally, as the two buildings create the shape of a question mark when viewed from above. Located on the Island of Shikoku and part of the rural Tokushima Prefecture, Kamikatsu is a remote village with a population of about 1,500 people.

In 2003 Kamikatsu proclaimed it’s hope to be a zero waste town by 2020, and whilst they have yet to fully achieve this, Kamikatsu has proven itself to be a pioneer of environmental sustainability within Japan and even internationally, inspiring countless people and places around the world. The residents of Kamikatsu currently recycle over 80% of what they use, much higher than the average 20% in Japan and double the 40% recycled on average in the UK.

For Kamikatsu, the journey to achieve a more sustainable lifestyle began in 2000, when strict emission laws came into place, forcing two of the village’s incinerators to shut down. Unable to ship their waste to other disposal sites in the area, the people of Kamikatsu had to reflect upon their lifestyles and thus turned towards recycling.

To realise their hopes of becoming a zero-waste town, Kamikatsu wanted to create an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to learn more about disposing of waste in an environmentally conscious way. Designed by architect Hiroshi Nakamura, the Zero Waste Centre and Hotel WHY were created with the desire to rethink the structure of waste processing, reducing, recycling, and reusing. Hiroshi Nakamura notes the importance of “making the maximum of Kamikatsu’s resources, rather than considering them to be wastes.” It is through this process that “we begin to realise their value and the richness of life in this town.”

This desire can be seen within every step of the way during the construction of the two facilities, as many resourceful strategies were utilised to minimize waste. For instance, wood from the area’s abandoned cedar forests was chosen for the building’s structure, and the charming patchwork façade of the building was made using approximately 700 windows, all donated by the local community. Manufacturing companies donated items they were planning to dispose of, such as bricks, fabrics, and tile, which were then redesigned and put to good use. Additionally, workers within the area were hired in order to revitalize the local economy.

Now, after almost twenty years, the people of this small village have the act of recycling fine-tuned and down to an art. Kamikatsu believe it is key to rethink how we treat waste. Since the declaration, waste collection has not been conducted. Instead, residents bring their waste to the centre where it is separated into forty-five different categories to be reused or recycled. Volunteers ensure that everything is sorted correctly, overseeing assortments of metals, plastics, commercial goods, and raw waste, to be used as compost. Anything that can be used again in its current condition is resold in the Kuru Kuru Shop. Dishware, glasses, clothing, small furnishings, and children’s toys can often be found at the shop, and residents are free to take any items they want or need.

Primarily a waste disposal site, the facility has since evolved into a community centre. Kamikatsu is a remote village, where homes are spaced out over a vast expanse of land, and so the centre acts as a place for residents to meet, socialise, and share ideas. Facility tours and ‘STUDY WHY’ programmes are also offered for those who wish to learn more about the centre.

Hotel WHY, the world’s first zero waste hotel is a small but powerful addition to the centre and to Kamikatsu as a whole. With four guest rooms, visitors can experience zero waste initiatives at each part of their stay. Upon arrival, guests cut their own slice of soap and take a portion of loose tea leaves for themselves. In their rooms, guests will find several containers for the disposal of different types of waste, from plastics to raw foods. Thus, visitors are taught how to separate and dispose of their own rubbish in the centre before their stay is over.

It remains Nakamura’s hope that the Zero Waste centre, along with Hotel WHY, will continue to reflect on and share the ways in which we can better reduce our waste, and lead more sustainable lifestyles. The rural town of Kamikatsu is truly a site of environmental revolution. It reveals that, at the heart of sustainability, it is people, and the ways in which they embody their goals. This small village demonstrates the importance of engaging, coming together as community and acting as a catalyst for change when striving to realise a sustainable and environmentally conscious society.

The contemplative question mark structure of the building can only be seen from the sky, a hopeful symbol that the inspiration to make a change will be transmitted on a global scale. Thus, we must consider the questions posed by the Zero Waste Centre and Hotel WHY anew.

How can we learn from their creative methods to reconsider and reflect on the ways in which we view waste? How can we embody the changes we wish to see today? What can we do to fight for a waste free, sustainable future?

Written by Katie Wilson, EP Business in Hospitality.