The Philosophy of Trash

It's pretty obvious to most of us how much culture influences our lives. Many of our norms and views come from the city/country that we live in. However, what is less obvious is how something as strange as garbage collection can influence our cultural norms.

I just spent two weeks in Spain and I was blown away by their garbage collection system. I also noticed how in comparison to somewhere like Japan, it creates a very different cultural norm.

How things work in Spain

Spain has the most intense garage collection system I’ve seen. The level that it was taken to was truly amazing. There wasn't a time of day that I didn't see the system operating at high speed. I also wouldn't be surprised if Spain employed the most people for garbage collection anywhere in the world.

As an example, I would leave the city at night with all the streets in this state (sorry for the blur), and come back in the morning to spotless streets.

So how does garbage collection work in Spain?

  • There are small street bins.
  • Large mega-bins (it seems for residents trash).
  • It seems like you are allowed to just throw rubbish on the street.
  • Then there are large collection trucks,
  • Small collection trucks.
  • People walking the streets hand-collecting rubbish from the streets.
  • Rabbits riding on the backs of canines scooping up cigarette butts 🐇🐕🚬🗑

Spain's philosophy: We (the government) will keep things clean so you don’t have to worry.

How things work in Japan

To contrast Spain to a very different style of garbage collection let's talk about Japan.

One of the most annoying experiences when you first land in Japan that every foriegner has is finding garbage bins. Because there aren't any!

In Japan:

  • There are very few street bins in Japan. Like none.
  • Seriously you can walk for hours and not find a bin.
  • Restaurants will have bins for anything they sold you, but you have to eat it there.
  • Even public stations have very very few bins, if any.
  • Instead, you are encouraged to take your rubbish home with you (this is partly why everything comes in plastic bags, so you can wrap it up.)
  • At home you separate and dispose of it like normal.

Japan's philosophy: Your rubbish is your responsibility.

Why so extreme?

That may sound extreme and inefficient but if you've ever been to Japan you will know that Japanese cities are amongst the cleanest you can find. So something about their strategy is effective.

The clue as to how they got this way and why it works came when I was out hiking one of Japan's famous trails.

Here I learned that there actually used to be bins out on the hiking trail for you to leave any rubbish after your lunch. However, as the trails became more popular the bins started overflowing as the collectors couldn't keep up.

With overflowing bins, people were tossing their rubbish next to the bin because that seemed like the only thing they could do.

This idea of chucking rubbish on top or near a rubbish bin is something you see all over the world:

So in order to solve the rubbish problem they were having the Japanese mountain rangers decided to do something counter-intuitive; they got rid of the rubbish bins.

By removing the bins completely, people no longer had anywhere to throw their trash, they were told to take it home with them instead. And it worked!

Bad learned behaviour

This is exactly the risk with street bins. When you have a plentiful amount of bins, people's view becomes that rubbish is not their burden, it is the burden of the city to collect.

This lack of responsibility means:

  • When you get int a situation where a bin is not close by, or it is overflowing, you feel it is the government's fault.
  • This makes people feel justified in leaving their rubbish anywhere (as eventually someone will collect it).
  • Seeing other people litter then fuels the norm that littering is ok (negative feedback loop.)

So ironically, by creating better rubbish collection systems, you train people that rubbish is not their responsibility. This can be ok (like in Spain), as long as you come through on your promise (which most cities don't).

In contrast, Japan is strict at reminding people whose responsibility the rubbish is. It is always your responsibility, there is never any doubt. This creates a greater sense of guilt (a wall of shame!) around tossing your rubbish anywhere.

Italy as a good bad-example

From my very limited time in Italy so far, it seems to be somewhere in between (like most cities). Italians seem to have the bad learned behaviour without the amazing collection system.

  • There are a decent number of street bins.
  • But collection seems to be less organised and effective.
  • So there is no culture of responsibility around garbage, and also poor collection.
  • The result feels like a dirtier cities with residents who don't seem to care.

Urban planning → culture

This whole issue of garbage collection is a great example of how city policy and urban planning directly shape our cultural norms.

The things that we don't think about, like garbage collection, street curb-radius, pedestrian crossing frequency, city block-size, etc. all heavily influence our cultural norms. They are what make us feel like it's either ok (or not ok) to litter, j-walk, speed, etc.

If you want to understand a bit more about where your norms come from, you should spend some time reading about good urban living in this series I did.


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on

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