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Bringing “Gomi Zero” from Kyoto to Festivals All Around Japan

Bringing “Gomi Zero” from Kyoto to Festivals All Around Japan

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IDEAS FOR GOOD is a web magazine with ideas for improving society. From cutting-edge technology with the potential to change the world, to compelling advertising and design, we bring you great ideas from around the world.

It’s almost festival season again. That means it’s time for takoyaki (fried balls of batter with octopus) with shaved ice and beer with yakitori (grilled chicken skewers)! Taking a stroll as you pick and choose food from local stalls is one of the delights of summer festivals. But it also generates huge amounts of waste from food and drink containers every year, leaving behind overflowing rubbish bins.
Recently, more events and festivals are beginning to introduce reusable containers in place of single-use containers. While this has been effective for reducing waste, most of these festivals have been relatively small with a turnout of only 3,000 to 5,000 people.
However, in 2014, NPO Environmental Design Laboratory ecotone, which has for many years applied and promoted reusable containers, introduced reusable containers for 210,000 meals at the Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto, one of the three major festivals in Japan with over 500,000 participants. Trash collection and separation was carried out with cooperation from waste collection and transport companies in Kyoto as well as the Kyoto City government, many street stalls and a wide breadth of Kyoto-based NPOs and NGOs. This was named the Gion Matsuri Festival Gomi Zero (Zero Waste) Project.

What were the results of the Gion Matsuri Festival Gomi Zero Project?

Countless street stalls line the city streets during the Yoiyama celebrations on the eve of the Yamahoko Junko processional parade of decorated floats, the high point of the Gion Matsuri Festival. Roadside restaurants and convenience stores sell food and drinks too, and they generate a large volume of waste. But because of the Gion Festival Gomi Zero Project, approximately 57 tons of trash in 2013 was reduced to approximately 42 tons (yearly average between 2014 and 2018). The amount of waste produced per individual also decreased, from about 114 grams per person in 2013 before the project began to approximately 88 grams. The introduction of reusable food containers at a large-scale festival like the Gion Matsuri Festival attracted attention as the first test of this in Japan and the world.
(c) The Gion Matsuri Festival Gomi Zero (Zero Waste) Project
Volunteers are making a significant impact on the Gomi Zero Project. Approximately 2,200 participants volunteered, including students, adults and participants from other regions of Japan. There were also 835 volunteers at the Tenjin Festival in Osaka.
Volunteers of the Gomi Zero Project (c) The Gion Matsuri Festival Gomi Zero (Zero Waste) Project
Actually, we ourselves participated in this memorable first Gion Matsuri Festival Gomi Zero Project too. When we were at the designated “Eco Station” collecting the reusable containers and separating trash, we collected plastic drink bottles and plastic containers for okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes) and other foods non-stop. We were overwhelmed by the huge stacks of garbage bags that appeared in just minutes. For that reason alone, we were happy to know that this project was reducing trash as the reusable containers were brought back to us! 

Introducing reusable food containers at more festivals around Japan

Reusable containers at street stalls
We also observed a difference in the awareness levels of Gion Matsuri Festival participants with the Gomi Zero Project. Kyoto University Professor Hiroshi Takatsuki pointed out that “The experience of separating resources from trash, as well as using and returning the reusable containers, could even lead to many festival visitors and volunteers reducing waste in their regular daily lives.”
(c) The Gion Matsuri Festival Gomi Zero (Zero Waste) Project
According to Kohei Ota, the director of Environmental Design Laboratory ecotone, many volunteers who have participated in this project have also introduced reusable containers at festivals around their own neighborhoods. For example, reusable containers were introduced to the Bon Odori festival held by Tokyo’s Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple for the first time in 2019. This four-day festival typically attracts around 120,000 people, with huge amounts of trash from the festival lining the rows of roadside shops at night, so implementing the waste reduction project in this festival would make a good impact. Students and faculty from Ryukoku University who had been volunteering at the Gion Matsuri Festival annually were the ones who were behind creating this opportunity.
Then, there was an even more amazing development. From 2017, the Tenjin Festival Gomi Zero Project began at Osaka’s Tenjin Festival which, like the Gion Matsuri Festival, is one of Japan’s three great festivals with over 1.3 million participants. That first year, the project focused only on a 1 km-long stretch of Minami-Temma Park, but over 40,000 sets of reusable containers were used and 14 “Eco Stations” were set up. As a result, aside from collecting resources, the project reduced the amount of trash scattered around the area to a surprising degree.
Left: 2016 Right: 2017 (c) The Tenjin Festival Gomi Zero (Zero Waste) Project

Encouraging personal responsibility for waste

Ota has suggested creating mechanisms for waste disposer responsibilities (responsibilities toward an individual’s own waste) as a topic for future consideration. For now, securing the necessary funds to dispose collect trash in Kyoto is a burden borne by neighborhood associations and street vendors, but not by convenience stores or roadside restaurants.
Also, the costs for the Gomi Zero Project are currently covered through subsidies and aid via donations, through corporate collaborations and by the Kyoto City government, but this cannot continue forever. Establishing a fundamental mechanism to ensure that the people who produce waste are responsible for its disposal costs is crucial to continue to effectively manage this waste issue.
The fact is that resources are limited. In view of today’s issue of plastic waste in the ocean, we must bring an end to this era of waste disposers throwing garbage away without taking personal responsibility. Starting from Kyoto and the Gion Matsuri Festival, we must continue to draw attention to the challenges of shifting to reusables at Japanese festivals and in our daily lives.

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IDEAS FOR GOOD is a web magazine with ideas for improving society. From cutting-edge technology with the potential to change the world, to compelling advertising and design, we bring you great ideas from around the world.