The disposal of gomi (ごみ) or waste in Japan is a complicated affair. For the newcomer, it can be an ordeal. And since the rules differ from town to town, there is little this write up can offer other than a very basic outline. The most important thing to do is to ask a local just what the hell is going on and get your facts straight, unless you want to upset the collectors and your neighbors. I didn't realize just how difficult it could be until I found myself in the midst of a long discussion about it with several friends. It took several tries and many phone calls for me to figure the system in my town, so if you are having issues yourself, you are not alone.
First, all garbage is divided into burnable (もえる ごみ) and non burnable (もえない ごみ). All food waste and paper products are considered burnable. This category also includes old clothes, plants and wood. In most places, there are separate bags for burnables and non-burnables. In Ariake, for example, burnables are collected in clear plastic bags with red writing and non-burnables are collected in bags with blue writing. I am certain that the writing explains the items that can and cannot be thrown into each, but my kanji study has not yet taken me that far.
So far, so good. Now it is time to factor in the recycling categories. Recycling is still relatively new to the Japanese and they are fanatical about it. There are several different categories for recycling and each one has a different collection day. There is a third bag for recyclables. Recyclables are divided into PET items (ペツトボトル) which are plastic bottles, containers and sometimes wrappers with the #1 PET symbol, glass (びん)and cans (かん). All items to be recycled must be carefully washed and dried. Some towns collect all the recycling one time a month, others collect certain categories on certain days. The key is to get a schedule and carefully study it.
Milk cartons and Styrofoam are also recyclable, but are only collected at grocery stores. Like all regular recycling, Styrofoam must be carefully washed. Milk cartoons, after careful washing, must be cut and flattened in the specified way.
There are several other types of garbage that must be delivered to special collection points. Batteries and old light bulbs cannot be thrown in with the regular non burnables. Some towns or municipalities have collection days for large items of rubbish, in other places you will have to take them to the local dump yourself. Again, a translator of the rules and regulation is very much required and highly recommended.