The over-packaging problem in Japan

The over-packaging problem in Japan

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People call the 21 century “the era of plastics”. Over the last decade, the world produced more plastic waste than in the previous century. Now more than ever before, it is crucial to find ways to solve the plastic problem. There are a number of initiatives and movements promoting recycling and conscious consumption all over the world. Japan also has given increased attention to the issue. The country is known to have one of the best recycling systems. However, the amount of plastic packaging waste is in absolute contrast to the country’s recycling efforts.

Let’s explore the over-packaging problem in Japan and see if a nationwide ban on excessive wrapping and free plastic bags is a necessary measure.

Japan is the third country in the world in terms of the production of plastic. According to The Japan Plastics Industry Federation (JPIF), from January to July of 2022, Japan has already produced more than 3 million tons of plastic products. Plastic film and sheets cover the major part by weight, and they are followed by containers and products for machine tools and parts.

One can imagine that big industries, such as electronics or industrial machinery, are the biggest consumers of plastic materials. Japanese automotive sector, for example, consumes increasing amounts of plastic; housings of computers and cables are also mainly made of plastic. However, it is ordinary people who contribute the most to the over-packaging problem. Japan ranks second in the world on plastic waste per person. In 2020, plastic bottles and packaging waste amounted to 4.07 million tons. Let’s see what are the reasons behind this fact.

Consumer-centered business

First and foremost, business in Japan is highly consumer-centered. The goal of companies is to convince their consumers that their products are safe and clean. It stems from the concern over hygiene and the high quality of goods. It is common in Japan to wrap vegetables and fruits in several layers of plastic for protection and hygiene purposes. In supermarkets, shop assistants carefully package every item, so that customers feel valued. Moreover, with a growing number of internet shops that usually send all purchases by post, the usage of packaging as protection increases even greater. There is also a perception that excessive wrapping is a touch of luxury.

Gift-giving culture

Another point is that Japanese gift-giving culture may have an impact on increasing the usage of plastic products. In Japan, people give gifts not only for special occasions and holidays but also as a social obligation. Gift wrapping plays an important part in the gift-giving culture. Thus, all these manners create more demand for packaging and decorations.

False impression

Local people often wrongly believe that every piece of garbage is recycled. Professor Yu Jeong-soo from Tohoku University says that society has become too dependent on recycling. Having sorted their garbage, people get the false impression that all waste will eventually be recycled and reused in the future.

Yes, it is a known fact that Japan has one of the best recycling rates in the world. For instance, in 2020, the recycling rate of PET bottles was about 83%. Bottles are usually turned into new bottles, palettes, industrial materials, microfiber for clothing, and a range of car parts. However, by no means all of the plastic waste could be recycled and reused. According to the report of Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, 25% of plastic waste is recycled, 57% goes to energy recovery, and 18% is disposed of. It is plastic bags and wraps that are tough to recycle because they are made of different types of plastic materials with different melting points. Thus, the most widely used packaging turns out to be unrecyclable, but many people are not aware of it. They believe that only recycling can tackle the waste problem.

No more exporting of plastic waste

Japan now cannot export non-industrial plastic waste to China anymore. Until recently, China was the world’s largest importer and recycler of scrap metals, plastic, and paper. In late 2017, the country introduced a ban on importing recyclable garbage out of concern over environmental pollution. It has severely impacted Japan’s recycling chain. Previously, the country exported about 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year, half of which went to China. Local municipalities and waste disposal businesses are now struggling to cope with piled-up waste. According to the poll conducted by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment, 34 municipalities cannot find a destination for their waste; about 35% of companies are planning to restrict the amount of plastic they accept. Japan exports waste to Asian countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam. However, these countries are likely to ban imports of garbage in the near future.

Marine pollution

Japan, being surrounded by water, is directly confronted with the problem of marine pollution. According to certain studies, 5 to 14 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans annually. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic garbage in the world’s waters than fish. Because of the currents, any garbage that falls in the water off the southern coast of South Korea is likely to end up on a Japanese beach. Japan always has to clear affected territories and ship the trash for disposal. Consequently, the country gets more plastic garbage than is generated within the country. As Japan’s World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Japan) stated, Japan has the great responsibility of combating the problem of marine pollution, since it is the third largest producer of plastics in the world.

Possible solutions

What are the possible solutions to the over-packaging problem in Japan? The most widespread solution is replacing plastic with eco-friendly and degradable materials and thereby increasing the level of recycling. For instance, there is a bioplastic that might serve as a substitute for conventional plastic. The Japanese government has announced a new plan aimed to reduce disposable plastic waste by 25% over the next decade. It proposed to use bioplastic which is made from plants. However, this material has its own pros and cons. On the one hand, experts highlight that it can increase emissions of greenhouse gases. Bioplastic ends up in landfill sites, where it degrades without oxygen, releasing methane. Extensive use of bioplastic can also contribute to the global food crisis, as its production requires large areas of land that previously was used to grow crops for human consumption. On the other hand, degradable bioplastic is made from renewable resources instead of oil, and the latter is known to be very limited. Furthermore, bioplastic can contribute to resource efficiency. Recycled bio-based plastics can be used for generating renewable energy. It thereby might be an alternative to conventional plastic. But the question of whether it is eco-friendly remains debatable.

Another alternative packaging material is paper. Paper is recyclable and made from wood which is renewable. Nippon Paper Group has started the campaign under the slogan of “let the paper do what it can do”. The aim is to “paperise” products that paper could substitute for, and plastic bags are number one on the list. The company noted that with a growing concern over the marine pollution caused by disposable plastic, demand for reusable and biodegradable packaging is increasing. However, the paper also has drawbacks for the environment. According to certain studies, paper production emits air pollution and consumes more energy than the production of plastic bags. It also causes deforestation which is an issue of the day in conditions of climate change. Furthermore, the process of recycling paper is inefficient, because it consumes more fuel than it would take to make a new bag.

On the whole, alternative materials such as bioplastics and paper may be a solution to the overuse of plastic packaging. Yet people cannot fully rely on these substitutes. From an economic point of view, bio-based plastics and paper are more expensive, as their production processes are more complicated and time-consuming. Manufacturers and service providers, considering the increase in costs, are not likely to switch to these alternative materials with enthusiasm.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

It appears that the most effective way to deal with the problem is by limiting and reducing the use of plastic. There is a 3R initiative, proclaimed by Japan’s government in 2005, that stands for Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. All three principles must work together. “reduce” is a significant part of building a sound material-cycle society, but it turns out that this principle is not followed. A packaging fetish illustrates it. One can find bananas enveloped individually in cellophane in every corner shop.

Japan’s government is planning to take control of retail shops and make them decrease sales of shopping bags. Some supermarket chains have already embraced the change and started charging for shopping bags. Some of them give customers discounts if they bring their own bags. However, it is far from being widespread. Yasuo Furusawa, director for sustainable materials management at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, highlights that many supermarkets fear competition with the stores that do not charge for bags. Moreover, he notes that there is a change in the role of convenient stores; they have started offering items like ready-to-eat meals, called “bento” in Japan. This creates more demand for packaging and plastic containers.

Market forces seem to be unreliable in tackling the over-packaging problem. It is necessary to take urgent measures at the national level and introduce a nationwide ban on free bags and excessive wrapping. There is a successful example of the implication of such a policy in China which imposed a ban on plastic bags in 2008. Since then, plastic bag waste has dropped by 60%. Moreover, education plays a big role in tackling the over-packaging problem. The more people understand the consequences of the overuse of plastic bags, wrapping, etc., the fewer resources they are likely to consume. Attitudes must be changed if our consumption habits are to change.

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