Japan is a country without visible trash – quite the opposite of the U.S. where it’s virtually impossible to find a road or a waterway that isn’t littered with some debris, usually plastic.

Six years ago, I visited my son Robert in a small town in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, where he was teaching English. During the 10 days that I traveled around the region by car, train and foot, I saw litter only once – a single plastic cup on a street in Kyoto – yet trash cans were nowhere to be found. In a country where packaging is king, I marveled at this cleanliness, especially in waterways like Kyoto’s beautiful Kamo River.

Sally Bethea
Sally Bethea

With limited land for waste disposal in landfills, the Japanese have developed a unique waste management system that also reflects their ethic of land stewardship. Every Japanese locality has a strict garbage sorting and recycling system that has become embedded in their culture.

While all of the garbage is separated into burnable, non-burnable and recyclable categories, some towns require separation into more than 40 different categories! Faced with the very real possibility of trash shaming by community leaders and neighbors and the refusal of collectors to pick up improperly filled bags, the Japanese are extremely diligent in their waste-handling.

The result: only 16 percent of the country’s garbage is deposited in landfills, as compared with nearly 70 percent in the U.S. Trash that isn’t recycled in Japan is incinerated in waste-to-energy programs. Importantly, the cities and countryside are not polluted by unsightly debris.

In America, we throw too much stuff away. Low landfill fees and a fragmented waste-management system have kept the country’s recycling rate far lower than most rich countries, according to The Economist.

On a recent walk around Piedmont Park’s Lake Clara Meer, I saw trash floating in the lake, including the ubiquitous plastic bottles; it was disgusting. How did this trash end up in the park: storm runoff, careless littering or a purposeful toss of unwanted packaging into the water?

We need to do better; we need to be better – taking cues from success stories like those in Japan.

Every October, the nonprofit organization Rivers Alive (riversalive.org) tackles the monumental task of corralling volunteers to pull man-made products out of the waterways that serve as our drinking water supplies and recreational areas.

While the numbers for 2016 aren’t in yet, those for last year are impressive: more than 25,000 people spent 87,600 volunteer hours during 268 events to pull half a million pounds of trash out of Georgia waterways. This haul included 39,756 cigarette butts, 15,629 aluminum parts/cans and 15,527 plastic bottles.

Bonny Putney, a former Rivers Alive board member and self-dubbed “trash queen” says: “Picking up trash is one of the things that we can do as citizens to effect immediate change – and it’s fun!” I totally agree. Picking up trash is highly satisfying, but why can’t we find a way to stop littering in the first place?

Forty-five years ago, the famous “Crying Indian” ad helped galvanize a generation to clean up our environment. What is it going to take to inspire cultural and behavioral change today – to keep the stuff that we no longer want out of our rivers, parks and other public spaces. Better laws, enforcement, trash shaming, packaging alternatives, innovation in recycling markets? Probably all the above and more.

One thing is plain: Japan shows us that we don’t have to live with garbage around us; this disrespect for our communities and for each other can be avoided.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.