I stumbled across this interesting article a while ago about how there was pretty much no garbage in Japan’s Edo Period because almost everything got recycled.
I translated it into English, but it’s a bit long, so if you’re like me and have the attention span of a three-year old from using the Internet too much, here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

Everyday life in Japan’s Edo Period would today be known as a recycling society. They didn’t just recycle to reduce garbage; they had a mentality of valuing things and completely using everything up. For those of us who live in Japan’s disposable society of today, there might be a lot of things we can learn from the Edo Period recycling mentality.

One type of recycler was the collector. Things were so valuable that people could make a living by collecting scraps and garbage. Collectors employed by public bathhouses went around looking for anything they could burn, even garbage, to save on expenses ,and paper buyers bought up used books and scrolls. Paper was so valuable that poor people were actually able to scrape out a living by going around looking for scraps of paper on the street. Scrap metal collectors would give candy to kids in exchange for old nails and other bits of scrap metal and there were even dealers who bought ashes from fires.

Even human excrement was valuable. One of the most bizarre recyclers in the Edo Period was the “night soil” collector, who bought human and animal excrement and sold it for fertilizer. (This isn’t in the article, but I’ve read it was so valuable there were even cases where criminals would steal it.)

There were thousands of used clothing shops, and Japanese clothing was ideal for recycling because kimono were cut straight in equal proportions with no waste, so even if it was old clothes or old rags, they were all standardized goods. From this point of view, they were completely different from Western clothes–if Western clothes are taken apart, they are all different sizes and have no value and cannot be recycled the way kimono were.

Repairers, the second main category of recyclers, would usually travel from house to house. You could get your knives sharpened, have someone resurface your mirror, ask them to put new teeth put in your clogs, or have your broken bowls glued, all without leaving the comfort of your own home.

The full article is after the jump.

Recycling in the Edo Period

Everyday life in Japan’s Edo Period would today be known as a “recycling society.” They didn’t just recycle to reduce garbage; they had a mentality of valuing things and completely using everything up, leading to the natural birth of a recycling society. For those of us who live in Japan’s “disposable society” of today, there might be a lot of things we can learn from the Edo Period ideas about using objects fully.

Yuya no Kihiroi (Public Bathhouse Wood Collectors)

It may be because of period dramas on TV, but many people think that in the Edo Period, dishonest proprietors were always bumping up prices, oppressing people, and basically fomenting revolution. Since the period lasted for about 300 years, it can’t be said there was never a time when things like that happened, but speaking generally, to modern people, the prices were unbelievably stable.
At the same time, wages were stable, and an adult, middle-class carpenter’s wages took about 200 years to double.

The fees for public baths were an index for the cost of living, and for a period of more than 150 years, adults cost 6 mon and children were 4 mon, so it can be said that the value of goods didn’t change through most of the Edo Period. The town magistrate regulated things as part of the sanitation administration, so it was not possible to raise prices. This was possible, of course, because the price of goods did not rise.

However, no matter how stable prices were, it made managing a public bathhouse ever more difficult, and since there was nothing the owners could do about it, the bathhouse employees would industriously go out collecting garbage around the town and along the riverbanks trying to save on fuel costs whenever they had time, so it was natural that garbage disappeared.

Kamikuzu-gai (Scrap Paper Buyers)

People who specialized in buying old paper were the most common type of collector in the past, just as they are in modern Japan. The term “kamikuzukai” was the old word for the paper-recycling industry. Usually, even if they were a small business, they had their own capital, and bought things like account books that businesses didn’t need any more for a reasonable price, sorting them into old paper and scrap paper, selling it to recyclers. There is no great difference between them and the merchants of today.

In the present age, paper is made from pulp fibres that are about 1- or 2-mm long, but traditional Japanese paper was made from plant fibres over 10-mm long. Furthermore, since it did not contain other additives, it was easy to strain it to make recycled paper. For that reason, every type of old paper could be collected and blended, from tissues to low-grade printing paper, and it was possible to strain it to make recycled paper. They mainly bought paper, so they were called kamikuzukai, but these merchants actually bought many things that people didn’t need anymore. There were many who bought scrap metal, metal products, and sometimes old clothes, linen, etc.

Kamikuzu Hiroi (Scrap Pickers)

This business also involved picking up old paper, but because they lacked the capital to buy anything, they had no choice but to walk through the neighborhood assiduously searching for discarded paper, taking it to used-paper wholesalers, and earning a tiny daily income. In the past, things were so precious that even these people were able to scrape out a living somehow.

Tokkeebee (Metal Collectors)

These were specialized used-metal collectors who partnered with children, singing out “Tokkeebee, tokkeebee.” The common children in Edo would pick up old nails and other bits of metal while they played. They would trade them for simple toys or candy.

Haigai (Ash Buyers)

Ash buyers and ash shops are the ultimate recycling business, buying up all ash, the final state of everything made from plants.

Furugi-ya (Second-hand Clothes Shops)

Used clothing was a big business. Cloth was all handspun in Japan until the Edo Period, so there was not much production capacity, and it was very valuable. According to records from the year 1723, there were 1182 shops that were members of the used-clothing shops trade association, a huge number. Since there would have been many shops that were not members of the association, it can be said that it was a principal industry.

Most shops had their own premises, but some peddlers also sprung up. Many set up businesses by townhouses called nagaya, where they hung their clothes on bamboo poles, and they sold their clothes making them look attractive. If you look at old pictures, you’ll see they were not just tailors, but also sold old linens, scraps of cloth, etc.

With traditional kimono, one han (a measure of fabric) was cut straight in equal proportions with no waste, so even if it was old clothes or old rags, they were all standardized goods. From this point of view, they were completely different from Western clothes – if Western clothes are taken apart, they are all different sizes and have no value and cannot be recycled the way kimono were.

Kasa no furuhonekai (Umbrella Frame Buyers)

These days, even though umbrellas are made out of steel or plastic, we usually have to throw them out, but in the Edo Period, even parasols made of bamboo and paper could be recycled, and there were special collectors who went around buying them up so they could be reused.

The buying price depended on the condition, but there were three grades: 4 mon, 8 mon, and 12 mon. If they were in very bad condition, it was cheaper to burn them, but if they were worth more, they could still be used. The reason for the prices is that there was a four-mon coin that was very popular.

The furukasa-gai collected and bought old umbrellas, and used-umbrella wholesalers would peel off the oiled paper, and after mending the strings, would sell them through subsidiaries. In period dramas, masterless samurai in tenements working as umbrella sellers as a sideline appear again and again, and it is likely that they really did do this.

When the oiled paper was peeled off, the worst of it was burned as kindling, but the wide areas were carefully detached and sold as a special wrapping paper. This shows that our ancestors recycling spirit was nearly limitless. The oiled paper would lose the smell of wood oil because of the driving winds and rain, but it would continue to be waterproof, so it could still be used, depending on its use.

Furutaru-kai (Used-barrel Buyers)

In the past, barrels were the most common containers for liquids, so the barrels would be owned by drinking establishments, or in the case of “uchitaru” (literally “home barrels”), they were owned by the person who bought them. However, there were some barrels where it wasn’t clear who the owner was, and in that case, when the barrels were empty, they were no longer needed, and their ownership was in question.

There were special merchants who bought those old barrels, and there were specialty barrel wholesaler stores. There were even empty barrel wholesalers on the main streets in Nihonbashi, showing that it must have been a big business.

Even now, there are beer bottle and 1.8 liter sake bottles collection routes, and barrels were also recycled in a similar way.

Andou no Shikae (Paper Lantern Restorers)

In the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto and the surrounding area), there were lantern sellers who gave trade-ins on old or damaged paper lanterns. The trade-ins were not used as kindling. Twere refurbished and sold again.

Houkiuri (Broom Sellers)

Houkiuri were merchants who not only sold new products but also took trade-ins on old brooms. Old broom strands were gathered together and sold to be used as rope for use on plants, or as scrubbing brushes. It is not known why there was demand for old brooms, but if the old strands were mixed into new brooms to reinforce them, it is thought that the quality would improve.

Repair and Reuse Businesses

Ikake (Metal Repairers)

Ikake were specialists in repairing metal objects. When old pots and pans got holes in the bottom and they couldn’t be used anymore, or when candlesticks broke, people waited for ikake to come and fix their broken items. Ikake don’t exist at all today, but it’s said that until the late 50s, when all belongings were precious, ikake made the rounds of Tokyo’s residential districts.

Setomono no Yakitsugi (Rebaking Ceramics)

These days, if something made from ceramics or porcelain gets broken, anybody can repair it relatively easily with glue, but in the past, there were specialist artisans who did this. Long ago, lacquer was used to repair items, but in the end of the 18th century someone invented a method of gluing them with rice flour and then heating them, and it became possible to repair ordinary things like cheap rice bowls.

Geta no Haire (Wooden Clog Repair)

Since the teeth of wooden clogs get worn down quickly, there were some whose teeth could be changed. The teeth were longer and thinner than those of ordinary geta, and if they got worn down, just the teeth could be taken out and exchanged with new ones. This, too, was done by a traveling artisan, and if one waited for him, it could be done on the spot.

Tagaya (Coopers)

These days, everything is made out of plastic, but until 30 or 40 years ago, it was most common to use wooden buckets and barrels to hold liquids. The boards of buckets and barrels are held together with cylindrical hoops, and when the hoops got old and broke or bent, a specialist artisan would repair them by binding them with new pieces of bamboo. These too could be efficiently repaired on the spot if one called a travelling artisan who carried materials and tools with him.

Kagami Togi (Mirror polishers)

Old mirrors used a reflective surface of mercury plating on bronze, so they became cloudy and difficult to see in through use. Women waited for traveling artisans to fix the mirrors by coating them. The process of polishing consisted of, first, grinding with a fine grindstone. It was polished up with enoki charcoal, and then such organic acids as polishing powder, burnt alum, and plum vinegar would be mixed with mercury and an alloy made from bamboo grass, and if it was rubbed with mugwort, it would make a coating. Finally, when it was polished with Mino paper, the bronze surface would be covered with a new layer of mercury, and it would be as good as new.

Usu no Medate (Toothing a Millstone)

It’s a job that’s hard to imagine these days, but in the past, most people ground their own flour and such, so there were special stonemasons who would remake the grindstone’s teeth. Grindstones were heavy and could not be carried easily, so if these artisans did not travel around, the grindstones could not be repaired.

Togiya (Sharpeners)

Artisans who polished knives and such existed until fairly recently. Depending on the area, there are a few who still travel around. Any professional who uses blades does his or her own sharpening. People like carpenters and chefs maintained their own blades, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t need anyone to do it for them. However, if an amateur tries to sharpen a blade, if it is not done skilfully, the person might make it duller than it was before, so it was normal to hire an artisan.

Results of Recycling in the Edo Period

Ash is the final state of all products made from plants. In Edo, even these ashes were collected and recycled by specialists as fertilizer, which is amazing. In Edo, garbage and the ashes left after garbage was burned, as well as excrement, became fertilizer, so there was almost no garbage. (In the Edo Period, excrement was the most valuable type of fertilizer. There was no need for facilities and energy use, and by just collecting it, it was possible to obtain organic fertilizer abundant in nitrogen and phosphorous. The inhabitants of Edo produced an average of 10 ni of fertilizer per person per year from excrement.)

Original article in Japanese: http://www.simofuri.com/recycle/recycle.htm