Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Japan trash collectors call for residents to help limit infection risks as volume jumps

A pair of trash collectors, with masks on their faces, is seen loading up bags of waste onto their truck in Tokyo on April 24, 2020, in this partially modified image. (Mainichi/Yujiro Futamura)

TOKYO -- As the new coronavirus continues to spread and change the way people are leading their lives, workers in Japan engaged in cleaning duties, such as garbage collection, are facing more and more infection risks on the job.

It's not uncommon for trash bags for collection to be improperly sorted, so that recyclable plastic bottles end up mixed in with used masks. If the disposed products were used by people infected with the virus, they could still harbor particles capable of infecting workers who handle them.

Garbage collectors and others at the front line of the issue have called for people to "reduce risks by thoroughly observing etiquette when throwing away items, such as by tightly tying up trash bags."

On a morning in late April, an employee in his 20s of a private garbage collection business commissioned by the Osaka Prefectural Government suddenly stopped while collecting bags of burnable trash from a residential area. Inside one bag was a collapsible umbrella, a non-burnable item. When he tried to remove it from the rest of the contents while wearing cloth gloves, he found the bag was packed with used tissues and masks. Betraying his unease, he said, "What if they were from someone infected?"

The man works six days a week, collecting around 3,000 bags a day. He added that the sight of used masks left littered in trash collection areas is now common. He worries about the potential effect his work could have on his wife and four young children, saying, "Maybe I'll end up bringing the virus back home to my family."

The situation is similar in Tokyo. Shuichi Takizawa, 43, works as a garbage collector in the capital. According to him, the part of his job that scares him the most now is handling plastic bottles. Some local authorities run a system where they are disposed of directly into a plastic net, as opposed to being gathered into bags for collection. In areas using the nets, Takizawa has no choice but to remove the bottles himself, with the ones left open presenting a constant risk from touching the parts people have drunk from. He said, "If one of us doing this job gets infected, it could spread in our workplaces anytime."

According to the Ministry of the Environment, excluding municipal employees, some 230,000 people in Japan work for private firms in the handling and collection of general waste. At the end of March, the ministry also produced a pamphlet to advise households due to concerns that people working jobs related to trash collection were at risk of infection from the novel coronavirus.

Among the practices it recommends are that people dispose of their waste before it has a chance to build up, that they tie filled bags up tightly, and not to touch trash bags with the same hand used to handle used tissues or masks.

Mask shortages for trash collectors have also become more serious. Previously, an office in Tokyo managing the service was able to distribute the masks without limit, but from mid-March it has scaled back to a one mask per person per day policy. Its stocks appear to be reaching their end, but there's still no indication yet as to when new stocks can be ordered. The firm will have to prepare masks on their own if they cannot restock.

Additionally, while the route of infection is still unknown, as of April 23, 13 coronavirus infections had been confirmed at the Suma office of the city of Kobe's environment bureau, in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo. The office was closed on April 20, and the duties it was responsible for are now being taken on at other locations.

Takizawa said, "Garbage collection, like health care, is work that is essential to people's lives. It would be good if we had support, like priority in receiving masks. I would also like to see ordinary people doing more to closely follow the rules on how they dispose of their trash."

Increases in the amount of trash produced by households where people now refrain from going outdoors are also introducing a greater burden on trash collectors. In March, the volume of burnable waste collected in Sapporo, capital of the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, was 13.4% higher than in the same period in 2019, and 4.6% larger in the city of Chiba, capital of the prefecture of the same name that neighbors Tokyo. The Japanese capital's 23 special wards and the central Japan city of Nagoya also saw rises.

A Nagoya city official in charge of trash collection told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Perhaps because people have been spending longer amounts of time at home, the amount of burnable trash, plastic bottles, bulky waste, etc. have all increased. Precisely because this is such a difficult time, we want people to cooperate in separating their trash properly."

Since the state of emergency declaration was issued, the number of people working from home has increased. The trash collector in Osaka Prefecture said, "It feels like household waste is up by about 1.5 times to twice the usual amount. I'm constantly tired, and it's hard to breathe in a mask when you're sweating so much. I worry about how it'll be if we get to summer and the trash is still rising."

(Japanese original by Yujiro Futamura and Yuka Narita, City News Department)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media