Is Japan’s High Recycling Rate Enough?

The country has a sophisticated waste management system. But it also has one of the highest per-capita plastic consumption rates in the world.

Japan’s unique culture comes from a different era, when the West was first beginning to make contact with lands beyond the seas. It’s a country of rich culinary traditions, stunning architecture, and ancient ritual. But Japan is also one of the modern world powers, with a large population and commitment to an evolving production of wealth, technology, and development.

Photo by
Roughly 60 percent of all household waste in Japan consists of plastic packages for food products. Photo by sodai gomi / Flickr.

That development comes with environmental costs. The use of single-use plastics in Japan is unmatched by most of the world. Yet the country has also implemented an aggressive recycling system, built on the country’s progressive circular economy model, which aims at reducing waste by extending the life cycle of products. In other words, they’ve matched an exaggerated use of plastic with a sturdy recycling program. But is that recycling system enough?

Since Japan reopened to the world in the nineteenth century after almost three centuries of closing its borders to the West, the country quickly industrialized its agricultural system and transformed itself into an urbanized, globalized nation. These factors contributed to rapid population growth during the 1900s. The island nation reached its current population of roughly 125 million people by the year 2000 — triple the population from a century earlier.

During the American occupation in Japan after World War II, the Japanese started to become more acquainted with foreign customs, products, and consumer patterns, and an increasingly fast-paced lifestyle developed in major cities. This set the stage for what would be a massive development of food and basic goods distribution models, such as convenience stores and supermarkets, all over the country. Today, large and small supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines are spread throughout the cities, anchoring the urban landscape.

Convenience caters to the commute lifestyle of Japanese workers. According to a 2015 survey by the NHK Culture Research Institute, the average commute time for Tokyoites is about an hour, as most companies have their offices in central Tokyo while workers normally live in the suburbs. “Most people spend over $3 on their way to work on coffee bottles or other products from convenience stores,” says Kota a Tokyo citizen working in tech and robotics who asked to be identified by his first name only. This consumption culture of the Tokyoite workforce creates a dynamic market for enterprises like 7-Eleven Japan, Lawson, and Family Mart (the highest market share in the convenience store sector).

Finding all sorts of foods at any time and anywhere in the middle of the frenetic lifestyle comes at a cost, particularly when it comes to plastic waste. Most of the products flowing within the circuit of convenience stores and supermarkets are wrapped in single-use plastic packaging, facilitating on-the-run fast consuming while creating a serious amount of non-degradable waste. Onigiris are a great example. They are small rice balls with different fillings, covered by a layer of seaweed, and one of Japan’s most popular treats. Onigiris are usually eaten as quick snacks during busy days and wrapped in tailor-made plastic films. 7-Eleven alone distributes 2.2 billion onigiri rice balls a year in Japan. But onigiris are just one example. Roughly 60 percent of all household waste in Japan consists of plastic packages for food products, such as sushi, bentos, and pasta. Today, Japan is the world’s second largest generator of plastic waste per capita, behind the United States.

Despite the global awareness about plastic’s social and environmental costs, countries like Japan don’t seem to be reducing its use. We can speculate on potential reasons.

The first is something easily witnessed when visiting Japan: the country’s unmatched commitment to hygiene. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of face masks among train passengers in Tokyo was quite normal to prevent the spread of disease and bacteria. Following this mindset, vegetables and fruit in supermarkets are typically individually wrapped in plastic film. One tomato equals one individual package. Extra plastic reassures health safety in products.

Visitors to Japan, like myself, also notice a similar attention that Japanese people give to gifts, delicacies, and other individual items. Even as far back as the eighteenth century, Greek journalist Lafcadio Hearn wrote that “everything Japanese is delicate, exquisite, admirable — even a pair of common wooden chopsticks in a paper bag with a little drawing upon it; even a package of toothpicks of cherry-wood, bound with a paper-wrapper wonderfully lettered in three different colours (...) Even the piece of plaited coloured string used by the shopkeeper in tying up your last purchase is a pretty curiosity.” This service culture has prevailed in Japan, though today the paper and wooden materials have largely been replaced with plastic.

Despite the overwhelming use of single-use plastic, however, Japan has an extensive recycling system to match it. Though it varies by prefecture, waste is typically divided into approximately nine different categories. A printed calendar exists in most household kitchens illustrating the days of the week or the month in which the waste of each category will be collected.

“It does take quite a reasonable amount of time and effort for residents to sort their recyclable waste,” says Ross Laratta, a professor of political science and social policy at the International College of Liberal Arts in Japan. “In fact, there are recyclable items that not only are collected and recycled separately, but they also require multiple actions before disposal: remove bottle caps, tear off labels, wash the bottle thoroughly, and finally crush the bottle.”

According to Laratta, the actual collecting works quite well. “It is incredibly visible, the high level of Japanese residents’ responsibility toward recycling, and the municipalities somehow expect so,” he says.

There is even a Japanese word that expresses a sense of regret towards creating waste, Mottainai which is traced back to the Shintoist philosophy that encourages appreciation of resources. “Since Japan has been poor for a long time and we don’t have natural resources, saving materials and recycling was our tradition,” says Yutaka Kakuma, leader of Glocal Mitaka, a nonprofit in Mitaka city, who sees Mottainai as a crucial concept behind the Japanese recycling philosophy.

But is recycling enough to combat high rates of plastic usage?

According to official numbers, in 2018 Japan recycled an impressive 84 percent of the plastic collected. (The US, in comparison, recycles about 9 percent.) Japan reaches this percentage through diversified recycling mechanisms. More than half of the collected plastic goes through thermal recycling, which means that the plastic waste is burned in incinerators to generate energy. Approximately 28 percent of the plastic is either reprocessed into new products or chemically recycled — broken down into its primary components and recombined to create new products. Some sources indicate that part of these volumes end up being exported overseas. The residual 14 percent is not recycled at all and ends up being dumped or burned without energy recovery.

The main concern about this picture is the large portion of plastic waste going to thermal recycling. Burning plastic to generate energy is productive, but creates harmful emissions. Although Japan has been working on the incineration technology to reduce the environmental impact, the emission of gases in such an urgent global warming context is particularly concerning.

It’s also concerning that some of the waste is sent abroad. Many of the receiving countries don’t have the infrastructure to deal with the waste. As a result, countries like Malaysia are dealing with alarming volumes of plastic waste in their landfills. Whatever Japan fails to recycle within its borders is most likely receiving inadequate treatment overseas.

In general, the Japanese collection system is admirable — a result of great design and outstanding compliance. More promising is Japan’s commitment to reducing its plastic waste in general and evolving from questionable practices such as thermal recycling. The Japanese government announced the adoption of a policy package in May 2019 to reduce plastic waste and emissions of greenhouse gases, which involves the reduction of emissions coming from burning waste. Tokyo prefecture has committed to this goal, announcing a 40 percent reduction of plastic waste burning by 2030.

The dramatic period our planet is going through tells us that recycling is not enough as a country’s position towards the environment. “If the Japanese government will invest more funds to equip municipalities to install recycling facilities, as it seems the Ministry of Environment is leaning towards, this effort alone may not be producing the desired effects,” says Laratta.

The recycling system treats a symptom of our dependency on single-use plastics. But what about addressing the source of the problem? There needs to be a real commitment to moving towards alternative packaging and the overall reduction in the use of this material. “Is the government able to confront the industry on this front without having any economical drawbacks in return?” asks Laratta. The debate is open, and either way, actions must be taken.

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