This has been the case for decades.
Retailers believe that if products are not packaged in plastic, it is difficult to guarantee food safety standards in the supply chain, according to a spokesman for Lawson, a nationwide network of grocery stores.
However, Japan’s deep reliance on plastics does not end with the packaging of individual items.
While other countries have been waging a war with disposable plastics for years, Japan is in the game slowly.
However, this may change. The Japanese government this month introduced a mandatory fee of 3 to 5 yen (3 to 5 cents) for each plastic bag, balancing the movement that has already taken place in the UK and the US.
Is this a sign that Japan is finally ready to deal with its love of plastic?
Japan’s obsession with plastics dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, says Roy Larke, a professor at Waikato University and editor of marketing news at JapanConsuming. At the time, Japan was considered a world race, but as its economy grew, the country sought to transform its image from a low-cost retailer to a premium retailer.
Manufacturers have paid more attention to packaging to appeal to consumers looking for quality, and retailers, who remain convinced that customers prefer redesigned packaging, have strengthened standards.
“Large retailers feel like quality judges for the customer, so they reject too standard packaging that is too simple,” says Larke.
Preference for packaging applies to food – hygiene and appearance.
In 1993, anthropologist Joy Hendry held the view in his book “Packaging culture: courtesy, presentation in Japan and other companies” that the preference for packaging food in plastic is an integral part of the Japanese culture of customer service or omotenashi.
Cheaper items may appear better when wrapped in plastic, writes Hendry. It gives the impression that the store provides better and more thorough services.
“Reduce, reuse, recycle?”
Japan can consume a lot of plastics, but it also promotes recycling according to Jeongsoo Yu, an environmental expert and vice dean at Tohoku University, as a noble civil enterprise.
There is even a national mantra: Reduce, reuse, recycle.
But while in Japan the approach to waste sorting seems sophisticated, in fact the country’s recycling system is amazed by the volume of plastics itself.
It sounds high – and it is – but there is an important caveat in the picture Chisato Jono, Greenpeace spokeswoman in Japan.
When people sort their plastic waste and throw it away, they assume it has become a new plastic product, says Jono.
However, this creates another problem. Jono says that once plastic waste from Japan enters another territory, it is impossible to know how other nations treat it. “We don’t know if (plastic) is recycled properly in a way that doesn’t affect people’s health in the process,” he says.
However, with China, which banned the import of plastic waste in August In 2017, plastic waste is accumulating in Japan, and according to Yu, many storage facilities are reaching saturation levels.
For example, in 2017, Japan exported approximately 75,000 tons of plastic waste to China. That number dropped to 45,971 tons in 2018 after the Beijing ban, with Japan redirecting plastic waste exports to Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand, according to a spokesman for the Plastic Waste Management Institute.
These countries are working to reduce imports of plastic waste, but do not yet have a total ban.
Yu, an environmental expert, says people in Japan usually think they made a piece when they wash plastic containers and neatly sort their garbage. In reality, however, the problem of plastic waste will continue to grow unless people change their behavior, for example by refusing to buy products packaged in plastics.
“That would encourage retailers to rethink their packaging,” says Yu.
When it comes to innovation
At the local level, some places in Japan have taken measures to reduce the use of plastics.
The people of Kamikatsu in southern Japan, a city of 1,490, have been governed by a “zero waste” policy since 2003. The aim of this program is to prioritize waste prevention by educating consumers to invest in reusable household items.
Waste – including plastics, paper, food scraps and glass – is divided into 45 categories that can be collected, exchanged or recycled.
Residents are also advised to avoid disposable products through a system that rewards consumers for points when rejecting disposable plastic items such as plastic bags, says Midori Suga, a Kamikatsu spokeswoman. These points can then be banked and used to purchase additional reusable items.
Any remaining waste that cannot be recycled – such as tissue paper – is still incinerated.
While the nationwide rule of the plastic bag fee represents a significant step to reduce Japan’s dependence on plastics, Larke warned that the fee may be too low to deter repeat offenders.
“If someone has too much to wear, especially in a store, they can buy a bag. However, if the fee was 10 yen (9 cents) or higher, it would be a different story, “he says.
However, Larke added that consumers in Japan have indeed committed to recycling and that suppliers could reverse customers’ expectations regarding plastic packaging if they incorporated it into their marketing.
Yu says it is more necessary than ever to move from a “discarded society to an ecological society.” According to trends observed in most of the developing world, more Japanese have decided to use reusable bottles and bags.
But individuals need to be aware of the extent to which their attitudes can change business models, says Jono.
“Some companies in Japan are afraid that customers will complain if they don’t put items in plastic bags, but if customers say they don’t need them, companies will try harder for change,” says Jono.
Attitudes are slowly changing. In 2018, Japan caused a stir by joining the United States and refusing to sign the G7 Pact to reduce the use of disposable plastics and prevent plastic pollution.
The following year, however, Japan pledged to reduce disposable plastic waste by 25% by 2030 – and to reuse or recycle 60% of all plastic packaging and containers by the same year.
Businesses are also involved.
Jono argues that the solution is not to create alternative biodegradable plastics, but to think of ways to completely eliminate the use of plastics. He gives examples of supermarkets that sell rice and beans in bins, allowing people to bring their own packaging and decide how much they want to buy. He also suggests looking back at what has done Japan best in the past.
“Thirty years ago, Japan did not use disposable plastics. People used it to pack things in newspapers or to transport food to a “furoshiki” (special substance) that could be reused, “says Jono.
“My family brought a frying pan to the tofu store to take the tofu home. We have to look at it. “