Etiquette guide: The art of sustainable living

From recycling points to saying no to plastic, here are the secrets of an environmentally friendly lifestyle in Japan by Tabea Greuner and Marcus Webb

DO: Seek out the recycling bins

Trash bins are a rare sight on the streets of Japan, yet the sidewalks in even the busiest cities are invariably immaculately clean. This is thanks to a culture of people taking their trash home with them to sort into the correct domestic recycling bin. That may not be an option for visitors, but major train stations and bus terminals often have large banks of recycling bins for their endless streams of travelers, as do community centers and parks. There are separate bins for combustible items such as paper scraps, noncombustible items like plastic cups, and recyclable items like plastic bottles. These are often found side by side but don’t panic—handy illustrations will point you towards the correct one for your litter.

DON’T: Toss your rubbish on street-side trash piles

When you walk past piles of bags of litter on the sidewalk awaiting collection in the mornings, avoid the temptation to add your trash to the load. Local municipalities designate the days when residents and businesses can dispose of certain types of trash. While adding your rubbish to the heap might seem harmless, you might cause the entire pile to be rejected by the collectors.

DO: Just say no

Japanese people have almost as many phrases for ‘bag’ as the inuit do for snow. There’s fukuro (袋) (bag), reji bukuro (レジ袋)(a ‘register bag’, the type of plastic bags you get at checkout at most stores), bineeru bukuro (a different type of plastic bag), kami bukuro (paper bag) and even sage bukuro (提げ袋) (a large plastic bag with a handle). To politely decline any of them, just insert your bag phrase of choice and finish with ‘wa iranai desu.’ For example, ‘reji bukuro wa iranai desu.
(‘I don’t need a register bag.’) For an easier catch-all, try the phrase ‘sono mama de daijoubu desu’ (‘just as it is is okay’), when your cashier reaches for a bag.

You’ll not only earn an admiring look for your linguistic skills, but often a discount for using your own container

DON’T: Go disposable

A lot of cafés and bakeries in Japan will automatically assume your food or drink is to go and opt for something disposable rather than using their crockery. If you plan to eat in tell your cashier ‘tennai desu’ (店内です). To specifically request a mug over a plastic to-go cup, use ‘magu kappu wo onegai shimasu.’ (マグカップをお願いします). If you’re on the go, but have your own reusable cup say, ‘koko ni irete kudasai’ (‘please put it in here’) or ‘tambura ni irete kudasai’ (‘Please put it in my tumbler’). You’ll not only earn an admiring look for your linguistic skills, but often a discount for using your own container as well.

DO: Refill

Put your reusable cup or bottle to further use at one of the thousands of Mymizu water refill stations across the country. These range from fountains to friendly businesses that will top up your bottle for free. This being Japan, there is of course an app for that; download it via and you’ll never need to buy a bottle of water in the country again.

You’ll never need to buy a bottle of water in the country again

DON’T: Overlook the pre-loved

Second-hand goods in Japan are mostly in perfect condition and a fraction of the price of buying new. If you’re in Tokyo head to the Shimokitazawa and Koenji neighborhoods which are home to a plethora of thrift and vintage shops, selling anything from preloved fashion and luxury goods to books, CDs, DVDs, games, and more.