A resource system in which waste is sustainably recycled within the community


Take > Make > Dispose: resource materials are extracted or harvested using wasteful energy and causing pollution and environmental damage. At the end of their useable life, the same items are disposed of in landfill or by incineration, wasting material and energy and causing more long-term environmental damage.


A “Circular” system where everything we use is “upcycled” to become new products, in ways which minimize energy use and help regenerate natural environments.

Our current system for producing the goods we use can be called, “Take > Make > Dispose.” During the “Take” phase, resources are gathered, including material extracted from the ground like metal or oil, and biological material like wood from forests, agriculturally-produced textile fibers, or food from the ocean. These items are distributed to users, and when we are done with them we dispose of them. Although recycling and other forms of reuse is increasing, the huge quantities of the things we throw away ultimately end up primarily as landfill or are incinerated. Both of these methods can create environmental damage, such as pollution to the air, ground, or watersheds. In addition, the current system requires a tremendous amount of energy for production, transportation, and disposal. “Circular” thinking aims to minimize waste by recirculating the material in the items we use back to the top of the production system, called “upcycling.” This means finding ways to use completely upcyclable materials as much as possible in everything we manufacture. It also means using renewable resources, such as those obtained from plants, like wood and fibers, as much as possible. We have learned from societies of the past as well as from recent experience how to do this in ways which help regenerate the natural environment and preserve its health. Ultimately, this kind of system can encourage communities to repair and redistribute their goods, and manufacturers to produce designs which can be easily refurbished to be used again. Success depends on education and helping community members develop these habits and priorities, as well as persuading industry that adopting these principles and methods will be good for their business.


Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center

SINCE 2003

In 2003, the town of Kamikatsu in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan, (population ~1500) established a goal of achieving zero-waste in the town by 2020.  This ambitious goal had several motivations. One, waste handling and disposal had become very expensive. Areas for landfill were limited and becoming full. Importantly, the town values its natural environment and traditional culture, and wants to preserve it for current residents and to attract visitors and new residents to the town. The process was step-by-step, and took over a decade to fully transition from the landfill and incineration method to almost total recycling. 100% recycling has not been achieved yet, but at present the level is 80%. This is remarkable considering that the current level of recycling in Japan as a whole is 20%, and in the US it is only 5%.

In 2020, a new Zero Waste Center was constructed in the town, and has attracted a lot of attention both within Japan and overseas. The facility is well laid-out, with a large portion devoted to containers in which town residents put their household waste. The waste is divided into 45 varieties, each of which has a different recycling/upcycling path. The containers are labeled so that residents will know whether the town will be forced to pay to recycle each type of item, or whether it will earn money by selling it. This part of the facility also has stockyards, where residents can obtain materials available for reuse. Town residents are responsible for bringing their refuse to the Zero Waste Center themselves. The center does not handle kitchen garbage (“wet” garbage). Instead, the town has made convenient household composting methods available, which residents use and then spread the compost in their gardens and fields. The center also has a recycle shop, and community space for events and education.

Credit: © Koji Fujii / TOREAL


The basic design features of the Zero Waste Center embody important fundamental “circular design” principles. The wood used in the structure is harvested locally. The architects have devised a method of using trees which have been simply split or milled to have two flat faces, leaving most of the log intact. They are assembled in a way that will make it easy to remove and replace or reuse them. The center features about 500 used doors and windows which were donated by town residents, and which form the main design feature of the exterior. This type of upcycling of building components was historically practiced in Japan. It also allows residents to feel connected to the center, as they can point out windows or doors that had been part of their own homes, schools, or shops.

Credit: © Koji Fujii / TOREAL

Education and outreach were considered very important from the beginning of the project, and the Zero Waste Center includes a small hotel where visitors can stay while learning about the zero-waste system and other activity in the town. The Zero Waste Center makes it easy for residents to participate in the zero-waste initiative, and serves as an anchor for the community. It encourages and supports a variety of connected activity, from learning centers to cafes and internships that attract visitors from outside the town and from overseas. In many ways, the Kamikatsu Zero Waste Center has become an effective model and demonstration of how to realize the goals of circular sustainability. The methods it has pioneered should be easily replicable elsewhere.

Credit: © Koji Fujii / TOREAL