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Ministry of Information

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor makes things happen and watches people in New York City and Budapest. Founding member of the Open University and of Think Tank X, artist and situation-maker, she teaches anthropology at Hunter College and Cooper Union in New York.

Kyoto Recycling Law


My landlord received a summons from the department of sanitation not long ago. As most of us have experienced and are also grateful for the beautiful objects we have found on the street know, there are all kinds of restrictions on where we can put our trash and when, what constitutes garbage and what constitutes recyclables, and how we should sort them. In my landlord's case, I believe he was summonsed for (someone living in our three floor walk-up building) having put perfectly useable furniture on the sidewalk in front of the house without notifying the city to pick it up.

Before I lived in this 3-floor walk up, I used to live together with friends: first, in a ground-floor loft, and later, in a house. In both places, it was our habit to sort the bottles that can be traded for a nickel apiece out of the trash. Instead of putting them in the bags sorted according to the mandates of New York City's recycling program, we put these precious cans and bottles out in front of the house, so that those industrious neighbors of ours who circulate the city collecting recyclables in precisely defined and valuable territories could take them away instantaneously, instead of having to dig through bags of trash and less "valuable" recycling.

In my current building, I don't dare to do that. I am afraid my landlord will be summonsed for the "ugly" trash that such bottles and cans would be perceived as. New events far away have gotten me thinking, however, about the importance of finding an "acceptable" way to make these valuable items easily accessible to these nocturnal neighbors of mine.

On October 28th, , 2010, the city of Kyoto in Japan passed an ordinance that makes it illegal (but not yet punishable) for anyone to take items out of the bags that citizens must buy from the city in supermarkets and convenient stores to put their recyclables in.

A quick scan of the news surrounding this ordinance is that two justifications are made for this law. The first is that placing the items in the city-designated bags raises the consciousness of city dwellers about the importance of recycling. Allowing others to take these items from one's trash, rather than placing these items in the city-designated bags, it is claimed, negatively impacts city dwellers' consciousness about the importance of recycling. The second justification is that the sights and sounds of (poor or homeless) people rummaging through the rubbish constitute a disturbance of an order which cannot be tolerated.

Ok, so we can see that there are two further issues here that are important to break down. The first is the question of social consciousness. It may be presumed that the value of a pro recycling consciousness-one which presumably leads to a naturalized tendency to "recycle"- follows from the fact that it benefits society. It is good for our planet, which has limited resources, one can argue. One can argue further that recycling has other additional social advantages as well. Consciousness of recycling is said to be a consciousness that things have a use value beyond that which many users may have for an item. If such things can be reused, they should be. If not, then they should be recycled.

So, as a social good, then, the reduce-reuse-recycle circuit can, and should, easily accommodate the idea that others may reuse or recycle those things that we will not reuse or recycle ourselves. In the 2000's we find ourselves living by the logic that recycling (now somewhat abstracted from the other two r's: reduction and reuse) is the province of THE CITY. Now that we have convinced our local governments of the value of recycling, we are to trust that THE CITY will do what's best.

It was, you'll recall, city dwellers who managed to get recycling programs established. To some degree city dwellers have also influenced what items will be accepted in each case (although the market is also very important in this). City dwellers are who make THE CITY, after all. So if we make THE CITY, then why shouldn't we also determine two whom our recyclables go to? Why not even design the participation of our industrious recycling neighbors into the game? If for you, the object is beyond use, then WHY NOT let another person, your neighbor in fact, reuse and recycle these items? Why not encourage it?

Just what stake might the THE CITY of Kyoto have in this process? Well, let's see. It turns out that recycling is big business! Millions of people make livings from the informal and formal recycling economies all over the world. By making recycling the exclusive property of THE CITY, Kyoto ensures that the resources derived from this wealth will go to THE CITY. It establishes your waste that may be recycled as the private property of THE CITY of Kyoto.

But, well, I remind you gain, cities are made up of their dwellers. And homeless people and those other nocturnal recyclers tend to come from the most vulnerable strata of urbanites at a moment of history when public resources once available to city dwellers have become increasingly privatized, and in which many members of the "middle class" have found themselves jobless, if not homeless. Making recycling the property of THE CITY means dispossessing a group of real, live city dwellers, our neighbors!, members of our community.

This brings us to the second issue, that of the interest of The CITY in circumscribing the behavior of city dwellers. Around the world, from New York to Budapest, "quality of life" ordinances have been introduced to remove homeless from public spaces. As Roselyn Deutsche points out, ordinances like these serve to define the public in such a way that homeless people appear not to be part of it. They are framed through such ordinances as an eyesore, a danger, a threat to the "quality of life" of the real public. Their use of public space, is said to be an imposition on a community (the public) to which they apparently do not belong.

Police also use disorderly conduct charges to remove homeless. One part of this issue is thus the construction of a sentiment that discludes homeless and other recyclers from our communities. The relationship of recycling practices to consciousness raising is thus not limited to the issue of whether we will recycle alone. It is also connected to our understanding of entitlements to public property-whether park benches or refuse. What we see here is the cultivation of our sentiments about who is entitled to reap the benefits of our recyclable waste.

As many scholars have pointed out, processes of gentrification, connected to the way that interurban competition works at the turn of the millennium (the so-called neoliberal moment), are directly tied with the production of homelessness. In the hands of development interests, low income, rent controlled, and public housing have all been decreased in relation to the relative value of real estate connected to such projects. Therefore, while this kind of gentrification produces homelessness, the values often attached to the gentrification process stress a quality of life that focuses on comfort, beauty, and consumption, defining those "ugly" results of the process as outside the public.

When the new recycling law was passed, Social Kitchen social and cultural center in Kyoto began to design a campaign to overturn this new law. Their efforts have been put off for the time being because of their work dedicated to the earthquake/tsunami and nuclear power plant related issues. But whether the law is overturned or not, there are a few things that might be done. Social Kitchen has considered making a space at the center where people can give in their recycling for the use of homeless or other recyclers.

I want to suggest, however, that a far more effective strategy would be to involve community members in making special bins into which recyclable objects could be placed for the use of homeless. If, as is argued by proponents of the law, consciousness of recycling is being cultivated through use of the bags, then, so, a different consciousness of recycling could be cultivated in this way. If community members, neighbors, with homes and without, participate in the project, whether designing them, making them, or simply placing recycling in them outside their homes, they will be cultivating a sentiment of community. If they were to partake in a project making recyclables available in a sightly and convenient way to their recycling neighbors, Kyoto dwellers will signal their recycling activities as a social activity that benefits other members of the community at a time when many people are suffering from the results of a worldwide recession, and are particularly vulnerable. Other members of the community, less attracted to the creative process, could be involved with establishing the legality of these bins.

A challenge for the folks at Social Kitchen is to find a language to appeal to your Kyoto neighbors. Is there a word or phrase in Japanese which means "service to the community" in terms of which this could be framed?