Updated: Sep 24, 2020
No country is perfect. I have lived in Japan for nearly 2.5 years at this point so it’s hard for me to compare it to other countries. These are just things I have observed since living here that I think are ridiculous in the realm of waste creation.
I love living in Japan, I love the people, I love the food, I love the culture. But, I don’t love how much waste they create. Let’s start with some negatives, but don’t worry, I’ll end on a positive note and we will talk about waste management and things Japan gets right.
Here are the wasteful things I hate about Japan:
Single-use oshibori. Oshibori are traditionally reusable, warm, damp hand towels. But, in the 21st century, they are almost always individually packaged and come single-use. It’s not that big of a deal except you cannot escape them. You receive one with take-out, with sit-down meals, at convenience stores, at street markets, and so forth. They are everywhere!
Individually wrapped candies, cookies, snacks, etc. You see this sometimes in the US, but this is what I mean: a pack of a dozen cookies in a plastic bag. BUT, each of these cookies is also individually wrapped.
Plastic wrapped everything: individual eggs, individual bananas, limes, lemons, and more. You will see everything, and I mean everything, wrapped in plastic despite if it has a natural wrapping or not
Bagging individual items. I have had someone bag an individual lime. I have seen people ask for bags for one Onigiri. They love bags, even for just one item
Excessive bagging. It doesn’t stop with bagging individual items. It’s bagging three items per bag even though more would fit. It’s double bagging anything remotely heavy. The average Japanese person used 450 bags per year, bringing the national total up to 30 billion.
Very few public trash cans and recycle bins. This in itself isn’t wasteful. Sure, it is supposed to encourage people to handle their own waste, but that is not always the case. I have seen fresh litter on beaches and in parks.
Vending machines everywhere...which is fine, but that means a lot of plastic-bottled drinks are sold every day, probably more than necessary
Same with convenience stores. I once counted 12 convenience stores within a 20 mile stretch of road. The average Japanese person buys 183 pet bottles per year making that 740 pet bottles sold her second nationwide.
Japan is second in the world (behind the US) when it comes to plastic packaging per capita. Japan (coming in at 106 kilos) actually produces more plastic than the rest of Asia combined (94 kilos)
Remember how we talked about the US exporting their waste in this video? Yeah, Japan does it too. Though, they only exported about 10% of their waste to China before the ban in 2018. But, they still export their waste to other countries like Indonesia and Vietnam.
Excessive plastic in general. When you get to-go food without bringing your own container, you will most likely receive a plastic box wrapped in a rubber band or taped shut. This will then be inside a plastic bag with plastic utensils, plastic straw, and plastic cup if you got a drink. Not much more than in the US, but I have never seen paper options personally
Plastic coated napkins. You might think I’m joking if you’ve never been to Japan but if you have, you can attest to this one. Their napkins are not completely paper making them non-recyclable AND non-compostable. Just straight up garbage.
But, why is Japan so wasteful?
Quite frankly, it boils down to a part of their culture. Japanese culture is one of cleanliness and organization. The cheapest and easier way to execute this in the 21st centuries is plastic upon plastic. It helps keep products from being damaged or dirtied. It allows the presentation to be nicer and make items better gifts. The higher quality the gift, the more plastic there is. See this strawberry for example from Robin Lewis at medium.com. Gift fruits (and other goodies) and wrapped in an insane amount of plastic to keep it looking nice.
Though, let’s not end on a bad note, Japan is doing some great things in the realm of waste. In 2014, nearly 94% of plastic bottles nationwide were recycled. Though, it is possible that the amount being burned is also included in this number. Sure, burning it produces heat energy, but recycling precious materials should always come first. So, it might be more accurate to say 56% is recycled for thermal energy, 23% is recycled to actually be reused as plastic, and 4% is reused for industrial purposes.
They are trying to get back to their more natural, cultural roots of using reusables and natural materials. This method of wrapping with cloth is called furoshiki. They are clothes designed to wrap and carry object as opposed to using bags. They are very versatile and can be folded to suit most items.It is a symbol of Japanese culture and emphasizes their desire to take care of things and avoid waste.
Even just at the beginning of August this year, there is now a charge per plastic bag. It’s not much, just a couple cents, but it will add up and encourages customers to use their own bags.
Their recycling system is well thought out and well executed. So, even though they produce way more waste than necessary, they are at least properly handling most, if not all, of it.
Not to mention, the rise of wastefulness, conscious consumption, and the zero waste movement is spreading throughout Japan. There have been more and more vegan options, low waste options, zero waste stores, and second hand stores throughout Japan in the two years I’ve been here. If you live in Japan or are just visiting, I recommend you join the Zero Waste Japan Facebook group!
While there is a lot that aggravates me as a zero waste activist living in Japan, there is a lot to learn from as well. Japan creates a lot of waste, but they handle it all very well as opposed to the US who creates MORE waste and does not dispose of most of it properly. Imagine if Japan could cut back their plastic usage more and more how great that would be.
Thank you so much for reading along. Let me know any other wasteful things you hate about Japan down below or things you think they are doing right.
If you’d like to see more content from life in Japan, here are some more posts:
Thank you so much for reading, what wasteful things do you hate about Japan?
As always, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)