This has been a big year for plastic so far. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed your social media feed exploding with information on the harmful effects of plastic on marine life—and lists of countries and cities that have promised to phase out single-use plastic in the next few years. Unfortunately, Japan is still choking on plastic. Items you buy at the supermarket or convenience store are often double and even triple wrapped. So how can you reduce plastic and do your part for a more sustainable world? Here are some easy ways to minimize single-use plastic in Japan on a daily basis—and save a few yen too! Yay for eco and cheapo going hand in hand.
1. Get a reusable bottle
Vending machines are ubiquitous here, and everyone seems to be constantly lugging around plastic water (or tea) bottles. While Japan has developed one of the most efficient systems in the world to recycle PET bottles, their production and recycling still uses up a vast amount of resources—and the amount of plastic recycled is not 100%. So reducing your usage of single-use bottles is definitely a big first step!
Simply buy a reusable water bottle instead, and put it into your bag when you leave your hotel or house in the morning. You can find versions of these ranging from the extremely reasonable (e.g. at 100 yen or 3 Coin stores) to fancy, light and durable glass water bottles for those who are concerned about chemicals leaking into their drinking water. If the bottle helps you buy even one drink less from a vending machine per day, for six days a week that you are out and about, this is already a monthly saving of over ¥3,000 and more than 25 plastic bottles a month! You are not only doing the right thing, but also getting yourself a free posh lunch (or three).
2. Refuse the plastic bag(s)
You have probably noticed store clerks in Japan wanting to hand you a plastic bag for absolutely everything, even that one pack of gum, which you just bought at the convenience store. Politely tell them: そのままは大丈夫です (sono mama wa daijoubu desu/it is OK like this) or 袋は結構です (bukuro wa kekko desu/I don’t need a bag). If you are just buying a handful of items, put them in your bag or backpack. If you are buying a few more things, and you know that you usually hit the shops on your way back home from work, just put an eco bag in your purse and reuse it every time (again, readily available at the 100 yen store or even at your local supermarket).
Added bonus: Money savings again! Several supermarket chains have started rewarding customers by offering a small discount if you do not use the store’s plastic bags. Examples are Life and Seijo Ishii. The discount is just 2 yen, but if you refuse plastic bags on a daily basis, you will have gotten yourself a free garigarikun popsicle at the end of the month, along with a cleaner conscience.
Follow the global trend of saying no to single-use plastic straws and either sip your beverage without one, or invest in a reusable straw (metal, glass or bamboo ones work well) and take it with you when you go out. It fits nicely into a pouch for my-hashi, reusable chopsticks.
4. Another way to reduce single-use plastic in Japan: Start taking your own tumbler
Did you know that Americans alone use about 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups a year? People are starting to take notice of this wasteful practice—which, in turn, means corporations have to, too. If you are a regular coffee or tea drinker, consider bringing your own tumbler next time you grab a takeout drink. Starbucks has already offered their patrons this option for years and so do Tully’s, a Japanese coffee shop chain, Segafredo, and a number of other coffee shops.
Indie coffee shops are also usually happy to fill your own tumbler, and often offer discounts of 20-30 yen, so just ask—even if there is no sign about it. I just hand my (clean, obviously) tumbler to the barista and ask them: これを使ってください (kore o tsukatte kudasai/please use this one) and have never been refused. If you have a pretty strong caffeine dependency, which needs a fix five times a week, this could save you around ¥400 a month, which equals to, you guessed it, one free coffee.
Alternatively, slow down and sit down for the coffee at the store.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and some people I know have gone much further to a virtually plastic-free life. However, cutting down on single-use plastic in Japan means changing habits that many of us have gotten used to over the years. Starting small is a realistic way to make it stick and become self-aware.
Recycling in Japan: Not as good as you might think
Finally, an important piece of information for the nay-sayers who claim that plastic in Japan just gets recycled: only a very small percentage of plastic actually does get recycled. The rest is usually incinerated (which is why you sort into moeru/burnable and moenai gomi/unburnable trash; the moenai batch simply gets burned at higher temperatures) or shipped overseas, to e.g. China, which accepts it for “recycling” for a fee. It is then ticked off as recycled by the Japanese government, but exactly what portion of it really does get recycled is hard to trace. Therefore, Japanese municipalities encourage citizens to apply the 3R strategy: reduce-reuse-recycle. And yes, reduce comes first and recycle comes last!
Still, Japan is ahead of many countries in waste management. The whole thing was actually a grassroots movement by citizens that were sick of stinky sprawling landfills, and their protests and lobbying has led to the effective system we have today. So let’s contribute to the next big step of sustainability by phasing out single-use plastic and saving both some yen and marine life!