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„Mottainai“ – A significant factor in Japans effective smart waste management system

„Mottainai“ – A significant factor in Japans effective smart waste management system

André Boeing – Feb 7th, 2024

While comparing different countries and their waste management systems from statistics to the mindsets and models behind I came across another beautiful, helpful meme from Japan, known for it´s mindful, simple words describing not just a policy but a philosophy: „mottainai.“ This term, which merges respect for resources with practical conservation efforts, serves as a cornerstone of Japan’s environmentally conscious mindset and exemplary waste management system.

In recent years, „mottainai“ has gained international recognition as a versatile principle for environmental conservation and sustainable living. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai popularized the term outside Japan by adopting it as a motto for her environmental and social justice work in Africa. The concept aligns closely with the 3Rs of waste management (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) but adds a fourth, „Respect,“ to highlight the importance of respecting the earth’s resources.

Cultural attitudes towards cleanliness, respect for resources, and community responsibility play a significant role in the effectiveness of Japan’s waste management system. The concept of „mottainai“ (a sense of regret concerning waste) permeates Japanese society, encouraging frugality and the mindful use of resources. Japan has, like Germany, implemented EPR policies (Extended Producer Responsibility), requiring manufacturers and retailers to take responsibility for the disposal of products and packaging. This includes obligations for recycling and has led to innovations in sustainable product design in Japan to reduce waste and improve recyclability.

The 6R-waste Approach

To fully articulate the breadth of „mottainai,“ I propose an expanded 6R framework, which includes 2 basic mindsets and 4 practical applications.

  • Respect: Recognize and appreciate the intrinsic value of resources.

  • Respond: Act responsibly towards valued resources.

  • Reduce: Minimize consumption to prevent waste.

  • Reuse: Identify new uses for items, extending their life.

  • Repair: Design products for durability and ease of repair.

  • Recycle: Transform used items into new products.

In the graph, the x-axis, common ground and horizon is „Respect“. The y-axis, the depth and heights is Respond. Both build the foundation pillars for the Circle and Quadrants. The 4 practical applications of Mottainai. Reduce Waste wherever possible. Reuse waste in creative ways. Repair items as long as you can. Recycle if the end of the product has come.

A consequence of the 6R mindset would be Exnovating the dominant product life cycles trimmed for short life spans of products to sell new stuff quickly and dispose of the outdated version as waste or second markets in developing countries. We should encourage markets for repairabilities both within products as well as repair and enhance service small businesses. Back to

Mottanai. Daily Life and Traditional Wisdom

In Japan, „mottainai“ influences various aspects of daily life, from minimalistic product packaging to the diligent sorting of waste for recycling. It is also evident in traditional practices such as kintsugi (the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer), which not only fixes objects but adds value to them, celebrating their imperfections and history. Repairability is another key foundation for reuse and respect in practice.

„Mottainai“ as a Japanese term also connotates a sense of regret concerning waste, reflecting the belief that it is shameful to waste anything valuable. The concept has deep roots in Japanese culture, tying into broader values of respect, gratitude, and conservation. While „mottainai“ can be applied to any form of waste, including time or opportunity, it is particularly relevant in the context of environmental sustainability, where it encourages efficient use of resources and waste reduction.

Historically, „mottainai“ is thought to have Buddhist origins, which promote living a life of moderation and avoiding excess. This philosophy dovetailed with Shinto beliefs that imbue natural and manufactured objects with a spirit, suggesting that wastefulness not only disrespects the physical item but also the labor and resources that went into creating it. Over time, these religious and philosophical influences have cemented „mottainai“ as a guiding principle in Japanese daily life and smart waste management system.


Mottainai embodies the transformative power of narratives and memes, that are simple, intuitive, and wise, sparking citizen participation more effectively than traditional, imperative „calls to actions“ that react to alarming facts. Its principles serve as invaluable tools for educational initiatives in smart waste management—a system in which we all inherently participate.

Embracing these practices could significantly enrich our lives, guiding us towards a lifestyle that is respectful and responsible. By focusing on what truly brings us joy, and emphasizing the importance of objects being reusable, repairable, and recyclable, we can contribute to a sustainable future without the burden of shame and guilt often linked to Mottainai. Instead, we can find joy and creativity in being part of a living narrative that not only manifests in our everyday actions but also drives the circular economy forward.


Waste: Beginning with the end

waste land

beginning at the end

André Boeing – January 11th 2024

15 Minute read – You can also listen to this page as a podcast

Download MP3

Making sense from public waste datasets with AI as a partner in citizen science curiosities

As a citizen of the documenta City of Kassel, Germany and a layman non-professional when it comes to Waste Management and understanding the statistics I needed help to create a dataset from the PDF that I can then ask in a natural way along my citizen science curiosities. 

I also had to change the metrics to kg. A metric, I am more used to in my daily live when stepping on a weight scale, buying flour, potatoes or for the easy conversion to Liters for fluids, where 1 Liter equals 1 Kilogram. I now have a better feeling for the waste scope instead of using Mg/a which I cannot even speak out correctly.

some waste statistics Kassel, 2022
generated by Citizen <>AI Collaboration

Human citizen asked questions and learned how to ask better and more precise questions along the way. AI answered and explained the way it got to the answer – for humans own replication and re-calculation which of cause I haven´t done. Human used intuition and curiosity, AI used calculation and explanation of how it calculated.

  • 2.528.600.000 ( 2 Milliarden 528 Millionnen 600 Tausend) normale A4 Blätter sind vom Gewichtsvergleich her allein in Kassel als Altpapier in 2022 angefallen. Das entspricht 12.643.000 Kilogramm Papier.

  • 162,147,000 Kilogramm Müll haben wir in Kassel als Bürger:innen und Gewerbe in 2022 produziert

  • 2,702,450 mal Ich vom Gewicht her und wir haben das Müllgewicht in unserer Stadt, das wir 2022 produziert haben. Wieviel kg wiege ich ? 😉

  • some answers that came out of the dialogue and questioning in German

ChatGPT created a Python script with the data set. This Python does not bite and just uses minmal bytes to do stuff.

And then we can simply ask questions in our natural language. How much waste in kg ? without industrial waste ? Just the ones we can re-cycle, etc.

For example I asked for a circle diagram showing the different kind of waste types just for household waste.

The second code snippet plotted the tasty pie. This code stuff is optional for fiddling and only opens when clicked. We can simply continue to ask in a natural way, of cause.

# Extracting the data from the provided information to create a dataset
waste_data = {
    "Year": ["2020", "2021", "2022"],
    "Restabfall": [34630, 33331, 32426],  # in Mg/a
    "Bio_und_Gruenabfall": [22173, 24355, 20005],
    "Sperrmuell": [6729, 7529, 5766],
    "Altholz": [6221, 4667, 3889],
    "Altpapier": [14510, 13651, 12643],
    "Altglas": [4275, 4229, 4069],
    "Leichtverpackungen": [5875, 6755, 6950],
    "Sonstige_Wertstoffe": [9440, 10850, 9200],
    "Gewerbeabfaelle_beseitigt": [824, 943, 508],
    "Gewerbeabfaelle_thermisch_verwertet": [58224, 60326, 63254],
    "Sonstige_beseitigte_Abfaelle": [2729, 2368, 2286],
    "Gewerbeabfall_zur_Sortierung": [5735, 5143, 6917],
    "Gesamte_Abfaelle": [164636, 166618, 162147]  # Total waste in Mg/a


import pandas as pd

# Re-creating the DataFrame from the extracted data
waste_data_2022 = {
    "Restabfall": 32426,
    "Bio_und_Gruenabfall": 20005,
    "Sperrmuell": 5766,
    "Altholz": 3889,
    "Altpapier": 12643,
    "Altglas": 4069,
    "Leichtverpackungen": 6950,
    "Sonstige_Wertstoffe": 9200,
    "Sonstige_beseitigte_Abfaelle": 2286

waste_df_2022 = pd.DataFrame([waste_data_2022])

# Plotting the pie chart for waste types excluding commercial waste
plt.figure(figsize=(10, 8))
plt.pie(waste_df_2022.iloc[0], labels=waste_df_2022.columns, autopct='%1.1f%%', startangle=140,
plt.title('Prozentuale Verteilung der Müllarten ohne Gewerbemüll in Kassel, 2022')

Checking out some real humans I could call by phone and ask my open questions in my city I surfed along these public waste management orgs and loved the wide range of services they offer + the way they communicate. Personal, human, elegant in style and natural.

Check it out – Great website & common good services

63.254.000 kg commercial waste
thermally recycled in 2022

Das Müllheizkraftwerk Kassel (MHKW)

Infos about MHKW

Personal Conclusions

Yeah 🙂 Celebrating the 20.6% organic waste used for new soil in a short period of time.  The light blue second biggest chunk in our waste pie.

Let´s talk about the Pac Man in the room. How come, we produce un-usuable, residual waste: „restmüll“. That biggest blue chunk in the statistic pie. A third of everything. 33.3% of our household waste. And only that tiny red piece with 7.2% is recyclable lightweight packaging – yellow bag – former „Gelber Sack“. What happened ?

  • Looking @ my self

    What are my biggest 2 chunks in the pie – my biggest waste  ?

    For me it´s

    1. Waste Paper Why do I use soo much paper ? Because it feels so „sustainable“, „natural“ and re-growing in endless rolls of toilet paper and sustainable food packaging ? Completely ignoring the amount of imported trees in paper production even with a high recycling rate ?
    2. Recyclable lightweight packaging. Feels light and clean from convenient zip and ready stuff. Collects well. My beloved eco work bag is made from pulverized recycled plastics. Yeah nice but shouldn´t I reduce ?

    + probably a hell load of bulky waste
    Residual Waste climbs to No 2 in my hardcore delivery Food phases at Lieferandos.

  • Looking @ my analog social networks, friends and work

    I have noticed a dominant habit of not separating waste among places I work and @ most of my friends houses. There´s a common meme that I hear which goes like this: „Waste separation ? Everything lands in the same dump anyway – so why the extra work in my busy daily life ?“

    So that´s a big question I will ask. Is that right or just a common excuse ?

Some Questions I want to ask a local expert..

  • DOES it all land in the same dump ?


  • 33.3% residual, un-usuable waste ? How come ?


  • and Where does it go ?


  • What happens with the Recyclable lightweight packaging ?


  • So much organic waste. Cool! What do we do with it ?


  • Are you up for a public Q+A where citizens can ask you questions about our waste ?


Had a friendly, informative phone chat with Mrs. Suchy, head of educational projects (Pädagogik) for the Waste Circle Kassel  (AKK). We chatted briefly about my questions and she can guide me to the right person to talk in depth + we talked about a possible group expedition in Q2 2024 exploring „The Way of Waste“ in our city region. Click me to get to the waste circle..

3 final conclusions for now

  • Did the numbers tell me something new ? The need to avoid waste where I can and separate the rest for recycling ? Of cause not. I´ve been knowing for so long and yet I do not act as much as I could. Maybe awareness, questioning and understanding the bigger picture helps me to contribute to solutions besides continuing to simply do better  ?

  • If the biggest chunk of our household waste is still un-usuable, residual waste – then do we have to amplify the citizen smart waste education in engaging different resonance groups ?

    Call to Action for ktopia agents:
    Design & Prototype fun educational modules in smart waste competence

  • Open Data, accessible and „askable“ in my natural lay language helped me to understand the bigger picture of our local wasteland as a citizen and to develop better questions in asking an open AI + real people with a vocation in that field – people I can meet and potentially collaborate with on our waste lands.

    To be continued…

André Boeing

the author & speaker

Freelancing Educator in Education for Sustainable Development, father of 2, in 2024 10th anniversary as a citizen of Kassel. Initiator of ktopia



published January 11th 2024
in category