What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

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Anyone who’s ever been to Japan or keeps up with news on Japan would know the intimate relationship the Japanese have with their plastic usage. It’s the kind of relationship that has quite a reputation and has been going on for an extended period of time.

Whether the unrestrained usage of plastic is because of quality providence, cleanliness, or convenience, there’s no denying the fact that the numbers are reaching a dangerously high level. The people of Japan are starting to realize that, and a couple of changes have been set in motion to assist the situation. Yet, it may not be enough to reverse the effects of decades of damage. What else can Japan — and those of us who are traveling and residing in it — do to soften the blow of impact of excessive plastic use?

We can’t change the past, but what we can do is improve the present and plan for the future. When it comes to the issue of exaggerated plastic usage, that’s exactly what Japan is doing — analyzing the numbers from the past, implementing measures in the present day, and preparing other means for the future.

Let’s take a closer look at this unique relationship between Japan and plastic.

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

The Situation of Plastic Use in Japan

Japan is known for its diligence in terms of recycling. They recycle almost everything and that includes plastic. Yet, despite the impressive recycling rate of plastics of 84%, the country is facing extreme pressure from the rest of the world for its excessive use of plastic.

Not every plastic that’s recycled in Japan is renewed into other materials and forms. More than half of them are thermal recycled, which means they are being burned to provide energy — that’s not exactly good. Dumping these incinerated plastic wastes in landfills is bound to build up and cause major environmental issues for the country.

The China waste ban in 2018 has significantly impacted Japan’s handle in the plastic waste situation, pushing specially designated companies that handle recycling waste into the corner with too much to handle. Local municipalities were requested to take some weight off these companies’ shoulders.

Why is Japan’s usage of plastic so extremely high? Take a look at the common culprits that contribute to excessive plastic use.

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

Excessive plastic packaging of products

Japan contributes the second largest amount of plastic packaging waste in the whole world, after the United States of America. Statistics show that Japan produces more plastic than the rest of Asia combined per capita — Japan produces 106 kilograms of plastic for themselves while the rest of Asia produces 94 kilograms of plastic and some of them are for export.

It’s not surprising though — Japan has a habit of deliberately wrapping a product more than a couple of times. It’s a common sight to see items packed individually, each with their own designated plastic packaging (or two), and then all of them chucked in a bigger plastic bag for ease of the customer to carry them. Anything you can think of that can be packaged in plastic — from supermarket food and meals to delivery packages and other goods — expect multiple wrapping of plastic in Japan. 

One-time usage of plastic bags

Japan has an extraordinary number of plastic bag usage per person. It’s said that the average Japanese person uses about 450 plastic bags a year. With a huge population in the country, can you imagine the total number of plastic bags used if every single one of the citizens is responsible for that number of plastic bags each year over the span of a couple of years?

These plastic bags are more often than not a one-time use. Supermarkets casually give out plastic bags to carry the groceries — these plastic bags are then chucked out after the customer gets home and unpack the goods. Smaller businesses are also doing the same thing, giving out plastic bags like giving out candy to kids. In both cases, they’re not good.

PET bottles

The Japanese are obsessed with purchasing PET-bottled beverages. It’s a huge market in the country — rows and rows of PET bottles made by various companies of multiple beverages can be found in convenience stores, supermarkets, cafes, and restaurants. Statistics show that there are about 23 billion PET bottles produced each year in Japan alone, making it about 183 PET bottles per person per year.

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

Why is Japan’s Plastic Usage So High?

All these numbers are extremely frightening to the rest of the world — how can just one person purchase and use that many plastic products? It should be illegal!

All the extra packaging, one-time plastic bag usage, and purchases of PET bottles can be due to their obsession with providing the highest quality for the product packaging, cleanliness, and convenience. Food products can be wrapped with a few plastic packages for hygiene purposes. Sweets and snacks are sometimes individually wrapped in plastic for convenience’s sakes — having it individually packed lowers the chances of your hands getting dirty because you can hold on to the plastic rather than the food itself. There are also occasions where a product is packaged with a few plastic wrappings because of aesthetic reasons as well as providing quality service.

It can also be that the whole situation is the norm — you won’t usually see people carrying their own grocery bags to the supermarket or carrying out their groceries in hand. 

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

Japan’s Methods Of Tackling The Plastic Problem

In recent years, Japan has been realizing the damage their excessive plastic usage is to the environment. Not only the Japanese government but also local businesses are taking measures to reduce plastic waste and promote plastic waste reduction in various ways. Plastic usage has become a part of the daily lives of the people in Japan that it can be rather difficult to eliminate the usage of plastic altogether, but Japan has been implementing methods and making their own progress to ensure a more waste-free future.

1. Charging for plastic bags

It has been in the talks for a while, but the proposal was officially approved recently. The Japanese government proposed a way to reduce plastic wastage by making it mandatory for all retail stores in Japan to charge for their plastic bags starting in July 2020. The idea is to cut down the plastic usage by 25% by the year 2030. While this proposal has yet to be implemented, it is a good first step to creating a waste-free environment in Japan.

2. The support of local businesses

It’s not only the government that puts in the efforts to change the state of plastic usage in Japan. There are various local businesses that support this concept to reduce wastage by implementing their own measures internally within their company as well as spreading the movement to their audience. 

Extremely successful beverage company Asahi has been known to be a role model when it comes to plastic usage reduction since the early 2000s. Previously they have reviewed the material of their packaging to make it more eco-friendly. Recently, Asahi introduced label-free bottles for all their beverages that used plastic as packaging. To promote this movement of reducing plastic waste, the company went to social media to spread awareness by promoting campaigns and hosting competitions where customers could stand a chance to win free beverages from them if they spread the word of Asahi’s cause to reduce plastic waste. This tactic not only reaches out to their audience but also a bigger one.

Another leading example is the Fast Retailing Group, more widely known as the company that runs the popular fashion and lifestyle brand UNIQLO. To reduce the usage of plastic shopping bags, the company switched out their plastic bags to recyclable paper bags. Their aim is to reduce the company’s plastic usage by 85% by this year. This is an extremely effective tactic as eco-friendly bags have somewhat become a trendy thing in Japan and the people are more likely to pick up this habit.

3. Konbini efforts

Convenience stores, or konbini, in Japan have almost 60,000 locations all across the country. If any scene can make a drastic difference in the excessive plastic usage situation, it’s definitely the konbinis. And true enough, the different companies of konbini have been putting in the efforts to reduce their plastic waste. FamilyMart is often finding new ways to reduce their plastic waste by reinventing their packaging for their products to reduce plastic packaging. Lawson has also implemented changes like switching out their plastic cups for iced beverages to paper-based ones.

4. Reduction and switch-out of plastic straws

Single-use plastic drinking straws are one of the most prominent plastic wastage products. Some Japanese eateries recognize this and have made efforts to reduce their usage of plastic straws. These efforts include either switching them out for paper straws or not offering them at all. It’s now getting more common to see these changes being made in cafes, restaurants, and other eateries. Even bigger companies like Starbucks in Japan are opting out of plastic straws and using paper straws instead.

Another movement to reduce the use of plastic straws is by producing bamboo straws. Big-name manufacturers like Amica Terra and BALIISM have been amping up their bamboo straw production to supply to eateries in place of plastic straws. Bamboo straws are extremely efficient in reducing plastic waste as well as saving the environment as naturally-processed bamboo can return to nature after use, unlike plastic. A Japanese restaurant chain in Japan named Watami has taken up this movement, and it has been applied to its 60 outlets across Japan and even the other 600 in Asia.

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

How Can We Avoid Plastic Usage in Japan?

The dangerous levels of plastic usage situation in Japan call for immediate action by everyone in Japan, local or not. Whether you are residing in the country or merely traveling, it’s good to be aware of the ways you can play a part in protecting the environment by reducing your own plastic wastage. 

Common, extremely easy things you can do to avoid plastic usage on your day-to-day activities include generally declining them when offered in supermarkets and eateries, passing on plastic straws, or even go another level up by bringing your own utensils and tools out.

1. Say NO to plastic bags

The ultimate way to help Japan — and the whole world, in fact — is to put a stop to using single-use plastic bags. Anywhere from grocery stores and supermarkets to the occasional take-outs and quick trips to the convenience store, politely decline the plastic bag where its only purpose is to provide convenience for you for that short period of time until you get home. Supermarkets are flooded with cardboard boxes that were once filled with the store’s products. Some local Japanese supermarkets are offering shoppers the alternative use of cardboard boxes to hold their groceries instead of a plastic bag — for the ones that don’t practice this, why not ask the staff if they have any to spare instead of using the plastic bags?

While you’re at it, refusing receipts to reduce unnecessary printing is another great step to a waste-free future — although that may be a longshot, as the stores in Japan mostly automatically print out receipts regardless if the customer wants it or not.

2. Skip plastic straws

Skipping out on the plastic straws has been an effort taken by the rest of the world for quite some time now but Japan has yet to catch up on the practice. Just like single-use plastic bags, plastic straws are more often than not single-use as well. 

For every drink, a person in Japan skips out on their plastic straw, multiply that by the days they purchase a drink outside and then multiply that by the number of people in Japan itself — the number of plastic straws Japan can reduce in the contribution to the general plastic usage in the country is huge! One small step taken by an individual is a ginormous one taken by Japan.

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

3. Bring-Your-Own bag

If you’re ready to take the next step of contributing to a waste-free future in Japan, consider the idea of bringing your own utensils and tools out. This can be anything from your own cups and containers to multi-use straws and reusable shopping bags.

Carry your own mug if you’re planning to get a drink when you’re out and about. Instead of pouring the drink into a plastic cup, hand your own mug or tumbler to the staff for them to fill it in that instead. 

Metal straws are a huge hit these days. Even for your tapioca (bubble tea) drinks, there’s a larger sized metallic straw so that those pearly chewy bites are able to fit. After saying no to that plastic straw, take a step further, and invest in your own set of metallic straws of various sizes (and colors if you want). Not only are these helping the environment and reducing plastic usage, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing for those Instagram photos!

It’s not that inconvenient to grab a reusable shopping bag before you head out to the nearest grocery store or supermarket to get your essentials for the house. This way can cut down quite a big of plastic waste in the country. It’s not a common sight in Japan to pack the groceries in your own bag that you brought from home, but if more people are seen bringing their own back, it becomes the norm and everyone will be willing to get on the bandwagon!

What Does Japan Do With Their Plastic? — The War Against Plastic Use

Useful Phrases To Know

Japan is not exactly English-friendly. Their first language is Japanese, and while they do study English in school from a young age, many have not had the opportunity to use and practice it on a daily basis. Because of that, their understanding of English is quite limited, so knowing a few words to communicate what you want (or don’t want) might be extremely helpful.

Some general words to know include “fukuro”, which means bag; “reshiito”, which means receipt; “sutoro”, which means straw; “futa”, which means the plastic lid to cups. “Madora” is one good to know as well as it means that stopper that you get on your takeaway cups of coffee or any other hot drink.

“~ wa iranai desu”

It’s actually pretty simple to politely decline anything offered by the staff of supermarkets and restaurants. If you know the word of the item in Japanese, just add “wa iranai desu” after it and you’ve basically turned the item down. For example, to say no to a plastic bag, you can say “fukuro wa iranai desu”, and it translates to “I don’t need a plastic bag.” Apply it for anything — receipts, straws, lids, cups, or any other plastic item you can think of.

“Jibun no ~ wa tsukaimasu”

If you’ve brought your own utensils or bag to use and would like to communicate that to the staff, saying “jibun no ~ wa tsukaimasu” will do the trick. Add in the Japanese word of the item in the middle of the phrase and, just like the previous one, you can generally let them know you have your own items in substitute. For example, “jibun no sutoro wa tsukaimasu” means you’ll use your own straw. 

The Wrap-Up

It’s quite evident that Japan is way too dependable on plastic usage that it’s technically a part of their lifestyle now, resulting in significantly high levels of plastic waste in the country. Alongside the efforts of the government and local businesses, if the people living and traveling to Japan play their part in limiting plastic usage, Japan will be well on its way to a waste-free future in no time!

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