No single-use: How to limit your plastic waste as a traveller in Japan

Supermarket aisle Japan

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Sustainability is one of our shared values. And living our values (as much as possible) means we try and limit our ecological footprint wherever we are in the world. As we prepared for our trip to Japan in early 2023, we realised the biggest challenge while travelling around the country wouldn’t be the language barrier but the challenge of limiting our (single-use) plastic waste. If you’re planning to visit Japan and want to do your utmost NOT to contribute to Japan’s plastic waste problem, this article is for you.

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How big is Japan’s plastic problem?

We did some research (after our trip), and sadly, what we feared is what we found.

On a per capita basis, Japan is the world’s largest consumer of PET bottles, and second largest generator of plastic packaging waste. Japanese use on average 450 plastic shopping bags per person per year (more than one a day).

Japan plastic waste generation per capita per annum | Plastic Atlas Japan (licence: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Japan has the second-highest plastic waste emissions per person in the world | Source: Plastic Atlas Japan (licence: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

What are the drivers of that plastic addiction?

We couldn’t find a clear answer anywhere, unfortunately.

There are the obvious drivers, such as Japan’s focus on customer satisfaction:

  • Presenting goods in an attractive manner is one way businesses show that they care. Packaging is used to please the eye, emphasise quality and ensure an item remains in pristine condition (even if it means using styrofoam).
  • Convenience stores and vending machines are (almost) everywhere. You never need to go far to quench your thirst or fill your stomach. And you get all the utensils you may need too: cutlery, condiments and a moist tissue to wipe your hands.
  • Doing groceries shopping in a convenience store or supermarket, (almost) everything is portion-sized to keep it all as fresh as possible. And to ensure your groceries make it home safely, a plastic bag is added at the check-out.
  • When it rains, sleeve dispensers for umbrellas are placed at the entrance of stores/museums etc so that patrons don’t have to carry a wet umbrella around and to make sure that no one slips and gets hurt.
Almost everything in Japan is wrapped in plastic, often multiple times, causing a lot of plastic waste

Almost everything in Japan is wrapped in plastic, often multiple times, causing a lot of plastic waste

On the flipside, Japan is known for concepts like Mottainai (which means too good to waste) – the habit to repurpose and/or repair goods – and the associated Kintsugi, the skillful art of repairing broken pottery. Indeed, we came across quite a few small shops where the elderly owners earned a living from mending broken items. Another uniquely Japanese concept is Furoshiki – wrapping things in cloth (including food). That’s how my former boss’ Japanese wife would send him off in the morning: his lunch skillfully wrapped in a colourful cloth.

How can both – the mindset of resource consciousness and the total opposite – exist at the same time?

Hand painted Kintsugi pottery bowl

Among all the plastic, Japanese are also resource conscious, as Kintsugi (the skillful repair of broken items) shows | Photo on Wiki Media Commons

Is there waste separation in Japan?

While there is a noticeable lack of rubbish bins in public (apart from the recycling bins you may find next to vending machines), it doesn’t mean that all waste ends up in one big garbage bag. Household waste is separated. Though the process is different in every city, and sadly not always followed in tourist accommodation.

To give you an example, this is the waste separation and collection scheme applicable in the city of Sapporo (a dumbed-down English version was supplied at our short-term rental accommodation):

Sapporo rubbish separation chart

Booklets like this are handed out to households in Sapporo to ensure correct waste separation (and collection)

Sapporo sadly though was an exception. In most accommodations we stayed in, waste was separated twofold:

  • PET bottles, glass bottles and cans; and
  • everything else (combustible waste).

What happens with the waste?

Since PET bottles are such a problem and they are separately collected, let’s take a closer look at those.

Thanks to the collection and separation schemes, 93% of PET bottles sold are collected and 86% end up being recycled.

Pet bottle collection and recycling rates

According to research, Japan has the highest collection and recycling rate of PET bottles worldwide | Source: Plastic Atlas Japan (licence: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Particularly if you look at above graph and compare it to the European Union (which we thought would be way ahead when it comes to recycling). Hold the horses.

Recycling in Japan doesn’t mean material/mechanical recycling (that is, the reuse as raw material for another bottle, for clothing, etc). No. In Japan, only 22% of plastic waste (which includes said PET bottles but also other plastic packaging) undergoes material/mechanical recycling. The majority ends up in incineration plants, to produce electricity – also called thermal recycling – and sometimes not even that.

Secular change in plastic waste processing methods in Japan

The majority of plastic waste in Japan is being incinerated | Source: Plastic Atlas Japan (licence: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

The above recycling rate only applies to what remains in Japan. In 2020, Japan exported 820,000 tonnes of plastic waste to South East Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan – roughly 46% of the total.

If you’re interested to learn how an incineration plant works (and visit an art work at the same time), you can visit the Maishima Incineration Plant in Osaka, designed by none other than Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Maishima Waste Treatment Center Osaka

The Maishima Incineration Plant in Osaka offers public tours | Photo on Wiki Media Commons

Are there any good news about Japan’s (plastic) waste (management)?

Fortunately, there are a lot of positive things happening too.

Firstly, while Japan is one of the largest producers of plastic waste, it is also one of the top performers globally when it comes to plastic waste management. Now it just needs to heavily reduce creating plastic waste in the first place. Good news here: As you can see in above graph, per capita plastic waste has been declining.

Streets in Japan are (largely) litter-free, despite the lack of rubbish bins in public. That and the 93% collection rate for PET bottles are indicators for the strong collective goodwill among the Japanese population when it comes to (plastic) waste management.

Local zero waste initiatives are leading the way:

As of July 2021, 84% of Japan’s population lived in municipalities that have committed to reducing plastic waste:

Local governments in Japan committed to the reduction of plastic waste

Local governments are leading the way in reducing Japan's plastic waste problem | Source: Plastic Atlas Japan (licence: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0)

And government legislation is slowly changing too. For example, in 2019, the Japanese government adopted the Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics and in 2022, it enacted the Law Concerning Promotion of Resource Recycling Related to Plastics.

While zero waste living in Japan (as in many other countries) remains a huge challenge, zero waste promoters among Japan’s content creators, such as Ran Nomura from Zero Waste Japan and Life Hugger, as well as Zenbird Media, enjoy a steadily growing audience.

How to limit (plastic) waste while travelling in Japan?

When travelling in Japan, there are several steps you can take to limit your contribution to the country’s plastic waste problem.

Accommodation

Avoid staying in hotels (full stop) or choose only those that have a clear sustainability and/or waste management policy (stated on their website).

If you can’t find a sustainable hotel alternative, refrain from using the single-use slippers provided – leave them untouched in their plastic wrapping. Don’t use mini bar items and portion-sized amenities such as soap, shower gel, shampoo, lotion, toothbrush, toothpaste etc. Instead, bring and use your own.

At your short-term rental, make sure to follow the waste separation rules. If there are no details provided by your host, just contact them and ask. Make sure to properly clean food containers that are being recycled (including containers for yogurt, jam, etc and tetra-paks for juice or milk).

Waste separation bins at Tokyo STR

Follow the waste separation rules at your accommodation, and if no instructions are provided, ask your host

Groceries and Dining

A big step in limiting the amount of PET bottles and/or cans your stay in Japan adds, is to refill your water bottle at your accommodation before you head out for the day. Tap water in Japan is generally safe to drink. If you have doubts or don’t like the taste of the water at your accommodation, simply boil it or use the MyMizu app to find a safe refill station.

Another way to reduce plastic waste is to cook at your accommodation or dine out instead of relying on ready-made convenience store meals in plastic or styrofoam containers.

Ready-to-eat meals at Japanese convenience store

Convenience store meals come in plastic or styrofoam containers - Cook at your accommodation or dine out instead

When dining out, bring your own set of chopsticks instead of using the single-use ones provided (yes, even if they are made from bamboo). You can borrow a set from your short-term rental’s kitchen (don’t forget to return them at the end of your stay) or bring your own reusable chopsticks (specialised shops sell a huge range, and a pair makes for a great souvenir to take home). Additionally, refuse straws and bring your own metal straw if you prefer using one.

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Try to buy your groceries at farmers markets, fish markets, bulk food stores, green grocers and bakeries. Remember to bring your own containers and bags to avoid using plastic packaging.

If you need to shop at a supermarket or convenience store, look for items that are unwrapped or only wrapped once, such as nuts, cookies or loose fruit and vegetables. Choose glass jars and bottles over plastic whenever possible.

Fruit and vegetables outside Japanese store

When groceries shopping, look for items that are unwrapped or only wrapped once, such as nuts, cookies or loose fruit and vegetables

If the cashier tries to put your items in a plastic bag or wrap glass jars/bottles in bubblewrap, kindly ask them not to:

  • Rapping-wa na-shi-de, ku-da-sai (no wrapping, please) OR
  • Sono-mama de dai-jō-bu des (It’s okay as it is) OR
  • simply I-ra-nai des (I don’t need it).

The latter two can also be used to avoid the addition of cutlery, condiments, hand wipes, etc.

Activities

If you’re out and about in the rain with an umbrella and enter a building, don’t use the sleeves provided. Instead, leave your umbrella in the umbrella locker (if there is one) or put it into the pocket it came with, a dry-sack (or reusable plastic bag you keep for that purpose).

Umbrella locker Japan

When sightseeing in the rain, use an umbrella locker when you're entering a building

What steps have you taken to avoid adding to Japan's plastic waste problem?

I wrote this Japan and it’s plastic problem guide based on my own experience. If you have visited Japan, what positive local examples did you come across on your travels? If the article resonated with you and you found it helpful, I would appreciate it if you could share it with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.

Author: <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/sandrarosenau/" target="_blank">Sandra Rosenau</a>

Author: Sandra Rosenau

Sandra Rosenau is a Gen X gal from Germany, born and raised behind the Iron Curtain, with an unquenchable thirst to learn. Self-starter. Multi-lingual. Minimalist. Environmentally conscious. Financially and location independent. Energised by connecting with others and helping people succeed.