Introduction

If you don’t already know, the Japanese have quite a special relationship with plastic. Some might even say the relationship is quite intimate — uh oh! It’s the kind of relationship that has quite a reputation and has been going on for an extended period of time.

However, it’s coming to the point where the numbers are reaching a dangerously high level. No matter what reasons there are, it’s come to the point where even the locals realize they need to do something about it. We can’t change the past, but what we can do is improve the present and plan for the future. And that’s exactly what Japan is doing. 

Even though the efforts won’t be enough to fully reverse the effects of decades of damage, it will clear things up more than not doing anything. Let’s look at the whole unique relationship between Japan and plastic, and what else the country as well as us travelers can do to soften the impact of this excessive plastic usage.

Japan’s Plastic Usage Situation & The Reason Why

I bet you heard about the diligent recycling practice in Japan. The Japanese recycle almost everything, and yes, including plastic. You’ll find at least three types of bins in a row wherever you go in Japan. However, regardless of the recycling rate of 84%, Japan is facing extreme pressure from the rest of the world because of its excessive use of plastic!

Even though plastic is recycled, not all of the recycled plastic is renewed into other materials and forms. More than 50% are thermal recycled, and that’s not exactly great. These plastics are burned to provide energy and then dumping the incinerated waste in landfills. That causes a whole lot of other environmental issues!

The reason behind the lack of conscious effort with regards to plastic use may be due to the extreme usage being the social norm. I mean, you don’t really see people carrying their own shopping bags to the supermarket in Japan, do you? Water bottles aren’t as big of a thing when you have the convenience of vending machines. 

How did the plastic usage in Japan become so extremely high in the first place, then? Let’s have a look at the common culprits that contribute to excessive plastic use:

One-time usage of plastic bags

You wouldn’t believe the number of plastic bag usage per person in Japan. There has been research that showed the average Japanese person uses about 450 plastic bags a year! That’s over one plastic bag a day! Can you imagine the total number of plastic bags used if every single one of the people in Japan uses that many plastic bags minimum each year over the span of a couple of years?

What’s more, these plastic bags are often of one-time usage. Supermarkets in Japan casually give out plastic bags to carry the groceries, and then the customers chuck them out as soon as they have unpacked their groceries at home. Smaller businesses are also doing the same thing — giving out plastic bags like giving out candy to kids. Not good at all.

PET bottles

The Japanese are obsessed with purchasing PET-bottled beverages. Japan has a huge market for that, from vending machines to rows and rows of PET bottled beverages in convenience stores, supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. Statistics show that there are about 23 billion PET bottles produced each year in Japan alone, making it about 183 PET bottles per person per year! Those numbers are insane!

Excessive plastic packaging of products

You might not believe it when I say that Japan contributes to the second-largest amount of plastic packaging waste in the whole world after the US, but you better believe it. Because they do! Statistics show that Japan produces more plastic than the rest of Asia combined per capita — Japan produces 106 kilograms of plastic for themselves while the rest of Asia produces 94 kilograms of plastic. Some of them are for export and not for the country itself, while Japan is for themselves alone!

Japan has a habit of wrapping a product more than a couple of times. Don’t be surprised to see items packed individually, each with their own designated plastic packaging (or two). Then, they’re all thrown into a bigger plastic bag for the customer’s convenience. Anything you can think of that can be packaged in plastic, the Japanese will go out of their way to wrap it in multiple layers of plastic. 

All these extra packagings, as well as purchasing PET bottles and one-time plastic bag usage, can be due to their hygiene and cleanliness obsession as well as the need to provide the best and highest quality of customer service in terms of convenience. Some places do it for the sake of aesthetics — can you believe that?

How The Japanese Are Tackling The Plastic Usage Situation

It’s about time Japan realizes that their complicated relationship with plastic is not exactly good. The Japanese have realized that their excessive plastic consumption is damaging the environment and causing all sorts of problems. Not only the government is taking measures to reduce wastage but also local businesses.

It can be difficult for Japan to totally eliminate plastic usage — after all, it’s been part of their daily lives that it’s becoming a habit. Hopefully, these measures below help with progressing to a more plastic waste-free future!

Charging for plastic bags

After years of discussion, The Japanese government finally approved the proposal to charge for plastic bags. Starting in July 2020, it is mandatory for all retail stores in Japan to charge for their plastic bags. With this method, the government hopes to cut down the plastic usage by 25% by the year 2030.

Reduction and switch-out of plastic straws

One of the most prominent plastic wastage products is single-use plastic drinking straws. Japan has caught up with the rest of the world and some of the Japanese eateries have either switched out their plastic straws for paper and bamboo ones or not even offer them at all! Even bigger companies like Starbucks in Japan are opting out of plastic straws, inspiring other local cafes and restaurants to do the same.

Another effort to reduce single-use plastic straws is by big-name manufacturers like BALIISM and Amica Terra. They started the production of bamboo straws and supplying eateries in place of plastic straws. Bamboo straws are even more efficient than paper straws as the material can be naturally-processed and returned to nature after use. A Japanese chain restaurant called Watami has taken up this method and applied it to all of 60 of their outlets in Japan as well as the other 600 in the rest of Asia!

Konbini efforts

With over 60,000 locations in just Japan alone, convenience stores, or konbini (コンビニ) have quite the influence. If anyone scene can make a drastic difference in the excessive plastic usage situation, it’s definitely the konbini. The different konbini companies like FamilyMart and Lawson have taken their own individual measures to play their part in improving the situation. FamilyMart is often finding new ways of packaging their products to exclude plastic while Lawson switches out plastic cups for paper ones.

The support of local businesses

Even the big-name Japanese companies are following suit with regards to cutting down plastic usage. Everyone knows the extremely successful beverage company Asahi. It has been known to be a role model in this area, implementing measures since the early 2000s. Not only did they make their packaging more eco-friendly and introduce label-free bottles for their bottled beverages, Asahi even spread awareness using their influential social media platforms. Promoting campaigns as well as hosting competitions, they motivate their customers to reduce plastic wastage. Fast Retailing Group is another leading example. This company is the mother company of popular fashion brand UNIQLO. They switched out plastic bags for recyclable paper bags.

How Can We Avoid Plastic Usage in Japan?

The dangerous levels of plastic usage in the country are no joke. Regardless if we’re living in Japan or merely going there for travel, we should all play our part to reduce plastic usage and play a part in protecting the environment. There are tons of easy things we can all do without going out of our way to avoid plastic usage. Even the smallest of efforts create big results if everyone is doing it. Let’s find out the methods we can implement to avoid plastic usage in Japan.

Say No to Plastic Bags

The ultimate way to help is to put a stop to single-use plastic bags. Instead of accepting the plastic bag from supermarkets and convenience stores, or even takeout service, why not try declining them? Supermarkets are flooded with cardboard boxes used to transport the store’s goods. Some of these grocery stores offer the alternative use of cardboard boxes to carry your groceries instead of plastic bags. But if the one you go to does not, approach the staff to request the switch. They’ll be more than happy to provide you with one.

Skip the Plastic Straws

This measure has been practiced by the rest of the world, and Japan is slowly catching on. Similar to single-use plastic bags, skip the single-use plastic straws. If every drink in Japan skips the plastic straw, the number of plastic straw usage will drastically decrease! One small step taken by an individual is a ginormous one taken by Japan.

Bring-Your-Own

If you’re ready to take the next step of contributing to a waste-free future in Japan, what about the idea of bringing your own utensils? This can be anything from your own cups and containers to multi-use straws and reusable shopping bags.

Bring your own mug and hand it over to the staff to make your drink in the mug instead of a plastic cup. Get on the bandwagon of metal straws — yes, there are even ones big enough for your tapioca pearls! You’re not only helping the environment but also producing aesthetically pleasing Instagram photos.

While you’re at it, grab a reusable shopping bag before heading out the door for your grocery shopping. It doesn’t have to be a fancy one, but if you insist, Daiso has quite a few cool ones like the netting shopping bag — only for ¥100!

Useful Words & Phrases

Japan is not exactly English-friendly. Their first language is Japanese. Even though they study English in school from a young age, their lack of exposure and opportunity to use the language result in their inability to converse confidently in English. Because of that, learning a few words and phrases in Japanese will greatly ease the whole process of communication.

Here are some general words to help with your efforts to reduce plastic usage:

Fukuro () — Bag

Sutoro (ストロー— Straw

Futa (フタ— Plastic lid for cup

Madora (マドラ— Stopper for takeaway cups

Reshiito (レシット— Receipt

Use those words together with these useful phrases:

~ wa iranai desu (〜はいらないです) — “I don’t want/need _____”

Jibun no ~ wa tsukaimasu (自分の〜は使います) — “I will use my own _____”

Conclusion

This complicated relationship Japan has with plastic led to the Japanese being too dependable on plastic usage, so much that it’s technically part of their lifestyle now. Thankfully the country is starting to realize its ways and making changes for the better. With all of the government’s implementations and the locals’ efforts to limit plastic usage, Japan will be well on its way to a waste-free future in no time!