Japan is one of the world’s largest producers of plastic waste due to its love of packaging, but a week of plastic-free Tokyo reveals surprising solutions.
When I take out the garbage every Tuesday morning, I see clear plastic garbage bags stuffed with empty PET bottles stacked alongside the blue recycling bins. In the Tokyo ward where I live, the city places weekly glass, aluminium, and plastic collection bins at strategic locations throughout the neighbourhood. The bins are always full by 8 a.m., but the volume of plastic bottle waste is growing faster than municipal governments can effectively keep up with.
Plastic bottle production in Japan has increased to a staggering 23.2 billion per year, up from 14 billion in 2004. Despite the fact that the country has advanced recycling technology, approximately 2.6 billion bottles are incinerated, disposed of in landfills, or lost to waterways and oceans each year.
Like most Tokyo residents, I am conscientious about garbage separation and always recycle plastic bottles. However, single-use plastics – products derived primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals that can only be used once – are difficult to avoid in Japan’s capital.
My street is lined with vending machines that sell drinks in plastic bottles. The selection of single-serving, ready-to-eat items, such as bento lunchboxes and pouches filled with comfort foods like kinpira (burdock root and carrots cooked in sweetened soy sauce), has expanded at the three convenience stores located within a five-minute walk of my apartment.Fruits cradled in polystyrene netting, packed into plastic cartons, and then wrapped in cling film are common sightings in supermarkets. Japan generated 32.4kg (71lb) of plastic packaging waste per capita in 2014, trailing only the United States, which generated 40kg (88lb) per capita.
I’ve noticed an increase in plastic waste in my home over the last few years. During the pandemic, my husband and I resorted to takeout and a plethora of delicious, time-saving frozen treats available online – vacuum-packed pizzas, plastic-wrapped burritos, and plastic bags full of potato galettes. One day, I realised that plastics accounted for roughly two-thirds of our waste. Concerned that ocean plastic pollution would quadruple by 2050, I feared we were on the slippery slope of convenience that is contributing to the plastic crisis. To see how much changing my daily lifestyle habits could reduce waste, I set myself the challenge of eliminating single-use plastic for a week.
The Plastics Problem
Even before Japan began charging for plastic bags at retail stores, I preferred to shop with reusable bags. Carrying a water bottle and downloading the MyMizu app, which displays a map of refilling stations throughout central Tokyo, assisted me in avoiding purchasing water in PET bottles.
To significantly reduce my plastic waste, I focused on limiting packaging, first by limiting lunchtime takeout, which frequently comes in plastic containers, and then by avoiding online shopping.
Excessive packaging is still the norm in Tokyo. At the checkout, store clerks frequently wrap glass jars in bubble wrap or automatically place loose vegetables in plastic bags.
According to Azby Brown, author of Just Enough: Lessons from Japan for Sustainable Living, Architecture, and Design, Japan’s obsession with packaging has cultural roots related to concepts of “presentation and respect, especially when giving gifts.”
The practise of wrapping objects conveys “respect for the other person.” Packaging indicates good customer service in the modern retail context: “Customers expect it,” Brown says. “People want to know that the food is safe and has not been bruised or soiled. The concept of cleanliness is crucial in this context.”
Despite my good intentions, I ran into problems early on when a beer importer offered to send me some bottles to try (as a food and drinks writer, I often receive such samples). The box was packed with plastic packing pillows, with each bottle wrapped in a double layer of bubble wrap.
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The week of my challenge also coincided with Japan’s worst heat wave since 1875, with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and soul-crushing humidity levels. I gave up after two days of cooking in my sweltering kitchen. I began supplementing dinners with prepared foods from various takeaway shops in my neighborhood, dreading the extra hassle of washing and chopping vegetables every night.
Although karaage fried chicken was sold in waxed paper bags and takoyaki octopus dumplings were served on boat-shaped bamboo trays, vegetable dishes such as pressed tofu salad and coleslaw were served in individual plastic clamshell packages. Items like kimchi, a Korean side dish of preserved vegetables, were wrapped in extra plastic, but so were fresh bread and pastries from my local bakery.”We try to minimise the use of plastics, but consumer demand is high in this humid environment,” says chef and Shinobu Namae, the owner of Bricolage Bakery in central Tokyo’s Roppongi district. “Weighing food quality versus the plastics problem is always a challenge, but we try to strike a balance.”
Looking for eco-friendly restaurants in town, I came across a list compiled by Mona Neuhauss, the founder of No Plastic Japan, of takeout restaurants that allow customers to bring their own containers. Unfortunately, none were in my vicinity. The same could be said for a number of Tokyo restaurants that sold food by weight. I was especially excited to visit Nue, the city’s first zero-waste supermarket, which sells bulk dried foods and produce without packaging. Getting there, however, would require a 52-minute train and bus ride from my house. Similarly, a train ride to one of Tokyo’s Aeon supermarkets with a Loop deposit scheme for reusable containers would take me 38 minutes. While these were great options for the occasional outing, none of them were practical for my daily needs. I do almost all of my grocery shopping on foot, within an 800m (2,625ft) radius of my house, so travelling across town to buy food makes no sense.
Instead, I began purchasing more produce at mom-and-pop yaoya greengrocers in my neighbourhood, where whole fruits and vegetables like pineapples and potatoes and cucumbers are pre-measured on trays and sold without packaging. Plastic containers are still used for many items, such as herbs, at these small vegetable stands. Instead of buying rice from the supermarket, I discovered a traditional rice shop selling by weight in paper bags only 600m (1,968ft) away. Going to different stores took more time, but I was never required to walk more than 20 minutes to each location. I kept doing the majority of my shopping at my neighbourhood supermarket, which has recently begun to sell some vegetables without packaging. When cashiers tried to stuff my loose bitter melon and eggplants into small plastic bags or wrap bottles in bubble wrap, I politely refused.
By the end of the week, these measures had reduced my plastic waste by nearly half, which was a good result but not as significant as I had hoped.
Plastic pollution in Asia
Plastic waste, which was previously limited to wealthy industrialised nations, is now spreading across Asia, even among developing countries, as a result of a confluence of rapid economic and population growth, compounded by globalisation.
“Single-use plastics are becoming less expensive to produce, and with globalisation, countries such as Africa and Asia can easily import these items. In such places, clean drinking water is frequently delivered in plastic bottles and bags “Tetsuji Ida, senior staff reporter at Kyodo News, has been writing about the plastic crisis and other environmental issues for over 30 years.
Asia produced 54% of the world’s plastics in 2019, led by China and Japan. China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam account for roughly half of all plastic waste found in the oceans. Plastics eventually degrade into non-biodegradable microparticles that endanger wildlife and human health. Plastic pollution affects nearly every marine species, and scientists have found negative effects in nearly 90% of the species studied. Microplastics have been found in blood, placenta, and breast milk, but their impact on humans is unknown.
Once plastic is burned and ends up “in the environment, it’s very difficult to retrieve,” says Melanie Bergman, a marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany who studies plastic pollution.