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Trash talk: Kobe tests speaking garbage cans to encourage proper waste disposal

Hirofumi Kurokawa, an instructor at the University of Hyogo, and students who came up with the garbage cans based on nudge theory are seen in front of the talking bins at Sankita Amore Square in Kobe's Chuo Ward on Jan. 18, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinya Yamamoto)

KOBE -- "You're the best for not littering!" That's one line from an unusually garrulous garbage can here in Kobe, one of four talking bins in the central Sankita Amore Square installed to see if they help reduce littering and encourage proper trash separation.

    The initiative was thought up by local university students and others, and is based on the behavioral economics concept of nudge theory. The tests are part of a project involving the Kobe Municipal Government, consumer goods multinational Procter & Gamble Japan (P&G Japan) and others to improve the local environment. Checks on the garbage cans' efficacy are set to continue until Feb. 21.

    For Kobe residents, the square in front of Hankyu Kobe-sannomiya Station in the city's Chuo Ward is a familiar meeting spot. But the huge amounts of trash including cigarette butts, empty cans and candy wrappers necessitate regular city government clean-ups.

    As part of efforts to tackle environmental issues, Kobe and P&G have partnered to improve the appearance of the square. A project team was created with Hirofumi Kurokawa, a 34-year-old instructor at the University of Hyogo who researches nudge theory -- the concept that people can be pushed gently to act in certain desired ways.

    Ten students at four universities in Hyogo Prefecture joined the team to consider how to employ the theory's ideas. They posited that if a person is praised for disposing of litter properly, they might feel good and become more likely to do the same in future.

    On Jan. 18, four trash cans each measuring 55 by 55 centimeters and standing 1.2 meters tall were installed in a corner of the square. The green, red, yellow and blue trash cans line up to spell out "KOBE," with two bins each for burnable trash, and the other two for cans and plastic bottles. From Jan. 25, internal sensors will detect when trash is placed in the garbage cans, and trigger the voice with its cheerful affirmations.

    Among the laudatory phrases it plays are "You're the best," "Thanks for separating your trash," and "Kobe is clean again." Sound effects including the sound of water and birds chirping are also played.

    Mafuu Katada, 21, a third-year student at the University of Hyogo who led the creation of the trash cans, said, "We chose an eye-catching design, and worked to make it so that throwing trash away came with positive feelings."

    The team will also put up signs in areas where people often litter to encourage better behavior, with phrases including, "Why not throw your trash in the bins 70 meters from here?" The experiment has five configurations, such as one where the praise recordings are kept but the signs aren't. By analyzing the amounts deposited and the state of trash separation, the team will ascertain how effective the initiatives have been.

    In 2016, there were trash cans in 18 parts of the city -- now they are present in just 13. The fall has reportedly been caused in part by people using the cans for household trash, and other improper uses. Kobe's environment policy division told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We hope people will be encouraged to think of how to properly dispose of trash."

    (Japanese original by Shinya Yamamoto, Kobe Bureau)

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