Inbound Ambassador

Every No-Thank-You Helps : Japan’s plastic pollution emergency

We have to eat, drink, work and live our lives in Japan- but plastic is inescapable and we are creating more problems for future generations. Actually, overuse of plastics is likely to effect our own lives within the next ten years as plastic pollution is in the food chain and in our bodies.

Plastic has been found in the soil of the world’s highest mountains and deepest sands in the oceans. It is likely that we will see the negative effects of ingesting plastics in the next ten years as plastic pollution is everywhere in water and soil, there is no escaping this problem.

Plastic Pollution Emergency
Japan has a responsibility to not only create effective policies to decrease the damage of plastic as the world’s 2nd worst contributor to the problem (per capita).

Leading researcher in the field of plastic pollution in Japan, Professor Hideshige Takada was featured in the NHK article, Big Problems for Microplastics for his work in Tokyo Bay in 2017, “Pollutants in microplastics intensify as they move up through the food chain. Ultimately, these chemicals may affect the immune systems and reproductive health of humans and animals”.

According to the Nikkei Asia Review article, “Global angst over plastic waste spurs Japan to act on packaging” Japanese industries are now creating solutions due to international pressure on single-use plastic in exports, but much later than their international rivals.

The good news is that international pressure for exports and inbound tourism is putting positive pressure Japan to change.

In August, News Asahi did a Japanese show on an international resident in Tokyo, Katie O’Brien, who is challenging herself with the impossible task of living plastic-free in Japan.

Aim for zero
Just like vegan and vegetarian residents who have to eat out for work or travel have to compromise at times with less than pure plant-based option, zero-waste challengers also need to live in the real world surrounded by everything you need wrapped in plastic.

Luckily, there are options and staff are finding it easier to allow you to reuse your own containers, here are some hints:

  • Bakeries: seems like the ultimate in plastic-waste, but bring your own bags and go straight from tray to #mybag is actually pretty straightforward. Bring a separate bag or container if you are mixing your sweets and savories, but staff have become more and more agreeable in this “sono mama irete kudasai” = “Just put it in (point to your bag) as it is please” request at the counter.
  • Shop plastic free wherever and whenever possible, but when impossible, give back the plastic: some supermarkets have plastic-free pumpkins, tomatoes and other fresh produce, but rarely can we find a majority of our daily necessities without a plastic wrapper. These are not things you can choose not to have, so give it back to the shop at the packing station. I think the shops are starting to notice that their bins are filling with the plastic wrappers they are trying to give to customers for convenience, or which are sent to their shops for convenience sake. Since disposing of these bins requires staff time and extra cost, managers should start to consider plastic free or reusable options and pass along these requirements to their supply chains.
  • Power to the consumer: choose shops which have less plastic and allow you to use reusable containers and avoid shops which are difficult and uncooperative. I had assumed drink shops and bubble shops were impossible as they have excessive single-use plastic cups, lids and giant straws, but was inspired by Katie’s efforts to ask staff to fill her own container. Every request is a conversation with staff that should help promote more plastic-free options in Japan. Be prepared for the staff to shake their head and say no, then you have to be strong enough to walk-out and find a more flexible shop. Shops which have reusable containers for eat-in and allow reusable containers such as #mymug to be used for take-out will be able to profit from this flexibility with the free positive social media marketing they receive. So, if you find a flexible shop, make sure to share it on your social media channels to activate this positive support of shopkeepers who are ‘doing the right thing.’

If users help promote these places, then other likeminded #zerowaste lifestyle seeking visitors and residents in Japan can add these shops to our want-to-go lists and widen the effect.

Use these hashtags on social media to allow others to support you and the shops using less plastic: #zerowastejapan #plasticfreejapan or in Japanese #ゴミなし (No Garbage = zero waste) or #海ごみ (No Ocean Garbage).

Expect difficulties and when it is easy you will have more appreciation for flexibility and change. Best to prepare yourself for downfalls and frustrations as these concepts are still new in Japan. In fact, there will be shops that seem to go out of their way to force the “good service” of plastic waste on customers. Be kind to yourself and to the staff- this change takes time.

Making the extra effort to take the unused plastic bag back to the shop that snuck it in, or returning the plastic utensils at the counter before you take it to your seat, as well as ordering with a preference for plastic-free (no straws, no plastic utensils, no lids..) when ordering are all important and worthwhile aspects of change!

Looking forward to seeing our anti-plastic social media hashtags start to trend in Japan.