Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

Mottainai: Waste Nothing, Respect All

Have you ever thought about how much waste you generate on a daily basis? If you’ve spent any time in Japan, you may be more aware of your waste habits. Last December, my sister visited the country and got first-hand experience of this. She was struck by Japan’s lack of public trashcans and surprisingly litter-free streets. Some municipalities have over 44 different garbage categories and people often carry around their trash all day to dispose of it properly at home.

Waste is a serious matter in Japan, guided for centuries by the cultural concept of Mottainai

having respect for the resources around you, to not waste these resources and to use them with a sense of gratitude.”

This way of life and disposal makes sense for an island country with limited landfill space. It’s encouraging that affluent, consumer-based countries have created such dynamic cultural waste norms, especially in light of America’s throw-away habits. For food waste alone, it’s estimated that the U.S. tosses 30-40% of its food produced annually, costing about $165 billion and producing almost 34 million tons of waste. Considering that every ton of food wasted creates 3.8 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the scope of this issue is staggering. What’s more, globally about $1 trillion or one-third of all food produced goes uneaten.

Due to these realities, we conduct an audit to track SPU’s waste contribution. This year with the implementation of a campus-wide compost program, it was a lengthier collection and recording process. Over the course of May, we analyzed about 820 cubic yards or 310,535 lbs. of waste: 26% garbage, 61% recyclables, and 13% compostables. 


Keep in mind that recyclables and garbage are often lighter and larger in volume, whereas compostables can be denser and more compact. After hours of sorting pounds of waste and collecting hundreds of data points, we are pleased with the results yet see some areas of improvement in properly disposing of our waste. For instance, over 50% of the waste surveyed from campus apartments could have been composted. 

The data collected last May reflects hundreds – if not thousands – of decisions made on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. It all adds up. As individual choices are magnified by our communities, our own responsibility is a crucial piece of environmental stewardship and Christian discipleship. Here are a few tips to help you on your way towards becoming a more conscious consumer (and maybe even practicing more mottainai):

Think. Become aware of what you’re buying and when you will use or eat it. Try carrying around a bag to keep your day’s trash with you like those in Japan do. You’ll be surprised how much waste one person generates.

Be. Slow down to become present in every moment. When you are mindful of the globalized implications of what (or who) is in front of you, needs and wants become clearer. This can make mundane tasks (grocery shopping, cleaning, bill paying) full of purpose, gratitude, and joy!

Save. Whether it’s glass pickle jars for durable containers or uneaten restaurant food for leftovers, save it! Reusing items reduces environmental impacts and can even save you major green. *Shout-out to my grandma, saver-extraordinaire, and all other grandmothers for modeling mottainai!*

As an institution committed to the flourishing of our students, our city, and all of creation, we look forward to diverting more recyclables and food waste away from our landfills. While we’re pretty excited about current programs in place for campus waste collection (compost and food recovery), we are always interested in new ideas. Comment below with questions or suggestions!

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