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Stacked plastic in a Japanese recycling facility.
Stacked plastic in a Japanese recycling facility. Image: sogane/Pixta
environment

Japan has a big plastic waste problem

34 Comments
By James M. Rogers

Since the first synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, an explosion in the world’s population and increased consumerism over the last century have led to a massive demand for — and the production of — plastic.

We’re beginning to grapple with just what to do with all this plastic now that we’ve utilized it. In a 2021 article, “‘Stingy, Stingy, Stingy Government’: Mixed Responses to the Introduction of the Plastic Carrier Bag Levy in Japan,” Brigitte Steger notes that Japan ranks second in the world regarding plastic waste generation per capita. The fact that plastic does not biodegrade and is expensive to recycle has led the world to have a serious problem with plastic waste. Specifically, the Japan Containers and Packing Recycling Association (2022) lists plastic packaging as the most expensive waste to be recycled in Japan.

Significant increases in plastic waste production led the Japanese government to create its 1995 Packaging Waste Recycling Law, requiring all municipalities to organize recycling efforts for its  citizens.

However, not only is plastic waste increasing, China’s 2018 ban on accepting plastic waste made the situation in Japan worse since it was a common destination for plastic garbage from Japan.

In 2021, the Japan Business Federation acknowledged that this ban had overloaded its capability to handle its recycling and that changes needed to be made.

Most plastic in Japan isn’t actually being recycled

Okinawa-Litter_sunrising4725-iStock-1477160177.jpg
Marine plastic litter strewn on the coast of Okinawa. Image: sunrising4725/iStock

In a 2019 Washington Post article, “Japan wraps everything in plastic. Now it wants to fight against plastic pollution,” Simon Dener remarks that the amount of recycled plastic waste is quite low in Japan, despite the government’s claim that 86% of its plastic waste is being recycled.

He elucidates that 58% of Japan’s plastic waste is “thermally recycled.” In other words, it is burned. Thus, it is not being recycled in the traditional sense that most citizens think of when they hear “recycling.” Moreover, Dener notes there is no way to confirm that the 14% exported to other countries for recycling is recycled in the traditional sense, either.

So, what is being done to improve the situation? Well, the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) 2021 white paper “Voluntary Action Plan for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society” notes that PET bottles have become 24.8% lighter in Japan compared to 2004 levels, and there has also been a 17.6% reduction in plastic packaging and containers compared to 2005 levels.

In addition, a 2020 law that requires stores to charge for plastic bags in Japan can be considered a success because it resulted in significantly more shoppers using their own bags.

What about all the plastic packaging surrounding what’s in those bags, however?

“...58% of Japan’s plastic waste is “thermally recycled.” In other words, it is burned.”

The Keidanren white paper listed 22 suggested approaches to “reduce environmental burden through product life cycle.” Out of these, “effective utilization of packing material” and “omit and simplify packing” are mentioned. Specifically, though, what Japanese products could benefit from these two suggestions?

A survey I conducted for a study I published on plastic waste in Japan (“On the Need to Reduce Food Packaging Waste in Japan”) identified one type of product that needs packaging minimization: souvenirs.

Plastic waste from deceptive Japanese packaging

The-Ubiquitous-Angled-Tray-Deceptive-Packaging-Method.jpg
The ubiquitous angled tray deceptive packaging method commonly used in Japan. Image: James M. Rogers

Japanese souvenirs, or omiyage, are well-known for having excessive packaging.

Sometimes it is necessary, though. For example, the individual wrapping of snack items makes for sanitary and convenient sharing of omiyage when they are shared at the workplace, which is an important Japanese custom. However, the fact that many of these souvenirs have what could be considered deceptive packaging is an area that can be significantly improved upon.

Food omiyage is often packaged to make it look like there is more product inside than there is. This practice is so commonplace that consumers don’t even seem bothered by it. Products are bolstered in various ways, but one of the most common ways is using a hidden plastic tray under the product. The tray is angled up for each item inside the package, taking up unnecessary space inside the box.

So, I wondered how much volume could be reduced if these angled trays and other deceptive packaging materials were removed. In my study, I also did an experiment. I purchased six random boxes of omiyage made by different manufacturers from the souvenirs section of a major chain mall in Japan. I removed any deceptive packaging and reorganized the product in the original box to visualize just how much empty space the packaging was creating.

How plastic waste in Japan can be reduced

The results revealed that all the manufacturers utilized deceptive packaging to some extent.

When the product was reorganized, approximately a 25-40% reduction in volume was achieved. This reduces not only plastic waste but also paper waste in that the outer boxes of all of the omiyage purchased were made of paper, and the total size of the box could be significantly smaller if there weren’t any deceptive packaging inside. Moreover, since total box size would decrease, fewer trucks would be needed to transport the same amount of product, giving the added benefit of reducing fossil fuel usage.

While the Japanese Business Federation and the Japanese government may be aware of the need to “simplify packing,” not much seems to be changing in the omiyage industry. As change usually occurs in Japan at a glacial pace, especially in regard to anything traditional, I wouldn’t expect any major changes anytime soon.

Then again, the transition to customers bringing their own bags has been pretty successful, which signals that government intervention may be key to change occurring. In a 2016 article on Scientific Reports, “Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters,” Kosuke Tanaka and Hideshige Takada found that 77% of the fish they examined in Tokyo Bay had plastics inside them.

Perhaps protecting one Japanese tradition — sushi — will take priority over another.

Dr. James Rogers is a university professor who has published books and over 50 articles on linguistics and Japanese studies.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

34 Comments
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Bring back plastic straws. There is no alternative that is "just as good".

-13 ( +4 / -17 )

Japan has a big plastic waste problem

Indeed. It's always has. What ever happened to greener plastic made from leftover fish guts and bones?

https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/greener-plastic-made-from-leftover-fish-guts-and-bones/4013521.article

Bring back plastic straws. There is no alternative that is "just as good".

Yeah... Last time I drank from a straw, I was 13.

6 ( +13 / -7 )

He elucidates that 58% of Japan’s plastic waste is “thermally recycled.” In other words, it is burned

Burned and turned into energy. It's not the cleanest, most efficient or most cost effective, but it's not simply 'burned.'

2 ( +6 / -4 )

He elucidates that 58% of Japan’s plastic waste is “thermally recycled.” 

According to a recent article published by the BBC …

Japan ranks second in the world behind Germany for plastics management. Although the country has been lauded for its plastics' recycling rate of more than 85%, the figure paints a deceptively rosy picture of the situation. According to the Tokyo-based Plastic Waste Management Institute, in 2020, only 21% of plastic waste underwent material recycling, which reuses plastic; 3% underwent chemical recycling, which breaks down plastic polymers into building blocks for secondary materials. 8% was incinerated, while 6% went to landfills. 63% of plastic waste was processed as "thermal recycling," which involves using the plastic as an ingredient for solid fuel and burning it for energy.

"That means that two-thirds of plastic waste is, in fact, incinerated. In Europe, this 'thermal recycling' would be considered energy recovery, not recycling," says Kyodo News senior staff reporter Tetsuji Ida, who has been writing about the plastic crisis and other environmental issues for more than 30 years.

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220823-quitting-single-use-plastic-in-japan

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Why are items in supermarkets double or triple wrapped? There is no logic in it. A pack of bacon, consisting of cut bacon sitting on an expanded polystyrene tray covered in saran wrap which wouldn't leak if you tromped on it is placed in a thin vinyl bag and this placed in a "reji bukuro" (plastic shopping bag). I could understand an item that might leak, like a pack of eggs, but that, for some reason is left "au naturel."

The thin vinyl bags should be scrapped. They serve no purpose.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Bring back plastic straws. There is no alternative that is "just as good".

Paper? Plastic? How about no straw at all?

Why do fully-abled adults needs straws? In the 'olden days', people could drink drinks without the aid of a straw.

9 ( +12 / -3 )

The article is mis titled. It doesn’t tell us much about Japan’s current plastic waste situation (just quoting from sources that are now several years old for that). Instead its just the author’s way of saying that he opened up some omiyage packages and found some empty space in them.

Which is OK, but performing an “experiment” in which you open omiyage packages and make the astonishing discovery that there is some empty space in them created by plastic trays - which everyone already knows - doesn’t tell us anything useful about Japan’s plastic problem.

There are some serious issues that need consideration here. Japan seems to have almost no domestic facilities for actually recycling plastic material, which is why it burns or exports it, neither of which is an environmentally friendly option. Why is that, and is there any prospect of that dynamic being changed? My guess is that there isn’t, probably due to costs, but if that is the case then the policy debate needs to focus on what to do about it. Reduce plastic consumption? Invest in alternative materials? The former is already being done a bit, but without any rigor. The latter is likely not useful in Japan where waste is burned rather than landfilled. Either way it seems rather idiotic to have the entire population sorting plastic garbage seperately from “burnable” waste when its all going to be burned anyway.

Point is that getting omiyage makers to reduce the empty space in their packaging, while nice, isn’t going to be a solution to any of this.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Recycling garbage (gomi) is something like a religion in Japan: people (mostly housewives) have to separate it into separate categories, wash plastic and other garbage, and tie up paper garbage (subdivided into various categories) into neat, tidy packages.

But this article tells us that 58% of plastic garbage is burned, and 14% is exported to foreign countries. I happen to know that Burma (Myanmar) is one of the largest recipients of such "gifts" from Japan, and much of it is just dumped in places where poor people live, like the slums of Yangon. So, it's recycled neither in Japan nor Burma.

So, all this recycling doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything. But I would disagree: the central and local governments use it as a form of social discipline. Woe to the unfortunate housewife who mis-categorizes gomi. She is likely to get a tongue-lashing or worse from this country's armies of nosey parkers, including the petty apparatchiks who serve as apartment/condo managers.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Why do fully-abled adults needs straws? In the 'olden days', people could drink drinks without the aid of a straw.

Not so. Cider was traditionally drunk with a straw. Usually made of metal. It worked as a filter - I'm sure very necessary to filter out those bits of decayed apple, insects, etc.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Nothing wrong with "thermally recycled" if it's done in a gasification power plant. They're not just throwing the things in a field and tossing in a match.

Issue is, a gasifier does not care what you throw into it, the waste does not need to be separated, it'll consume anything. So why do we have to separate our waste?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Spending a lot of time around Japan’s coasts is truly depressing -the sheer volume of waste plastic is

horrible!

6 ( +7 / -1 )

,” Brigitte Steger notes that Japan ranks second in the world regarding plastic waste generation per capita.""

I believe it, fresh baked bread, a fresh Donut, almost all baked and or grilled goods including sandwiches, even a fresh slice of Pizza gets wrapped in plastic to get it soft and soggy for that special plastic and cheese flavor for you !!, LOL

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Plastic straws are one thing. Individually wrapped onions, carrots or bananas is totally rediculous. Fine the stores that do this!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

When I was little my mummy always used her own bags for shopping. The veg and stuff wasn’t all wrapped in cling film and stuff like that either. Mostly it was glass bottles which you got a bit of money back for returning the bottle, these days it’s almost all plastics.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

In the olden days liquids came in bottles, processed foods in cans and everything else from their respective shop wrapped in paper. No plastic microwave bentos then I tell you.

I remember kitkats wrapped in tinfoil, Smith crisps in wax paper with a sachet of salt and poor old Bert Bassett came in a paper bag... lol

Back then, I was a tot and my mummy would take us up the hill to go shopping. We would first see Mr Salmon in the Green grocers, then would we go next door and visit Mrs Bread who ran the butchers with her brother called Mr Butter. Next was Mr Bacon in the bakers where we got a nutty loaf and finally young Ms Sprouts in the butcher who did a lovely lamb basket for our Sunday dinner. I remember the floor was skyways covered in sawdust. We would collect the green shields stamps from each ship to buy gifts from a catalogue or from any affiliated retailer. Can you believe it?

Unfortunately the rise of the supermarket and convenience stores such as Tescos and 7-11 put an end to all that and the colourful community of retailers has since disintegrated. I would trade the good old days for a microwave any day.!.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

In Kenya, waste plastics are turned into bricks used for constructing houses.

How are plastic bricks made in Kenya?

"The shredded plastic is mixed with sand and heated at extreme temperatures, becoming a viscous and malleable material that is shaped into bricks of all sizes."

https://www.africanews.com/2020/12/16/single-use-plastic-is-being-turned-into-colourful-pavements-in-kenya//#:~:text=The%20shredded%20plastic%20is%20mixed,into%20bricks%20of%20all%20sizes.

Another story of an earthquake house made from plastic bottles.

https://www.thebrighterside.news/post/game-changing-earthquake-proof-homes-built-from-plastic-bottles#:~:text=In%20the%20serene%20village%20of,with%20sand%20as%20'bricks'.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Fascinating. That technology could be used in Japan. Considering the amount of plastic waste generated. Thanks for sharing.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Adidas Sneakers are made from recycled plastics.

https://youtu.be/QWWF-EWHsYI?feature=shared

Shoes from recycled materials and plastics.

https://sustainablereview.com/eco-friendly-footwear-discover-recycled-shoe-brands-and-sustainable-materials/#:~:text=Several%20sustainable%20shoe%20brands%20prioritize,ocean%20plastic%2C%20and%20PET%20plastic.

Shoes for the poor people who have none.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Adidas Sneakers are made from recycled plastics.

Thats what they say. But conflicting that:

"Adidas continues to use animal products like leather, down, and exotic animal skins. Further evidence is needed to substantiate their claim of sourcing wool from non-mulesed sheep."

0 ( +3 / -3 )

There are many uses for waste plastic other than putting it in landfills.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Adidas does not claim not to use animal products.

https://www.adidas-group.com/en/sustainability/transparency/policies/#:~:text=adidas%20aims%20to%20source%20materials,leather%2C%20wool%2C%20and%20down.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Indeed. The trick is to make the uses financially viable.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

The economic and environmental costs of dealing with plastic waste are enormous. The plastic manufacturers need to pay a "plastic tax" to deal with it.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Check out the first boat made from recycled waste plastic

Flipflopi might sound like a funny name for a boat, but its creators are serious about fighting pollution and climate change. Check out how these environmentalist boat-builders have achieved a world-first.

https://youtu.be/BZb4OzGgM2M?feature=shared

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

People used to try and reduce plastic waste by unpacking plastic wrapped food, )especially those trays) and put the food in small plastic bags to take home . It reduced plastic waste at home but ultimately increased the waste in supermarkets. Unfortunately, the supermarkets didn't get the hint and rather than reduce their plastic wrapping, just put signs up saying not to unwrap food in the supermarket.

And things carried on as they always did.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

A reduction in the amount of used single use plastics is now urgent.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Here here. Our plastic rubbish is the biggest of all our weekly rubbish. We need to cut stuff with scissors to reduce the volume. It's madness.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

I thought you said you only buy fresh produce. Why all the plastic?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Invested in two sturdy pull over supermarket baskets bags.

However, keep your eyes focused to the fresh perishables - meat/fish etc, all should be separately wrapped.

Some of the counter assistants are ferret like fast, impressive stacking action, the hand speed basket work is lightening, expeditious finger nimble on the draw string operation.

Lean in.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

I thought you said you only buy fresh produce. Why all the plastic?

My neighbors give me all the vegetables I want.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

We don’t have to split the rubbish here. Bang it in the communal place and a chap comes round every evening to take away, the same, people that take the restaurants rubbish you see.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

We don’t have to split the rubbish here.

Yes you do, even if you (personally or your "abode") don't do it.

Good information for those who live in Osaka. It seems that the low-rent apartments use private collection services (run by less-than-reputable companies), while the better apartments and condominiums use the public collection service.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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