• Brooke Kuipers

Anti-environment or Pro-environment: Is Japan Really as Wasteful as it Seems?

The general consensus of Australian travellers seems to be that Japan’s reliance on single-use plastics is anti-environmental, and that Japan is not as environmentally conscious as Australia. Whilst it is true Japan is the second-largest producer of plastic packaging waste per capita (United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], 2018), this does not mean Japan is inherently anti-environmental. In fact, Japan’s recycling rate officially sits at a healthy 83% (Plastic Waste Management Institute, 2016) and, whilst Australia manages to leave 6% of waste uncollected, Japan has a 100% waste collection coverage rate (Waste Atlas, 2019a; 2019b).

This essay researches disparities between Japan’s dependency on single-use plastic packaging and their pro-environmental beliefs; their waste management system and their plans for a sustainable Japan in reaction to global pro-environment discussions; and the negative effects of their plastic use on the environment, whilst comparatively discussing Australia.

The disparity between Japanese citizen’s eco-friendly beliefs and their plastic dependency can be linked to habituation; however, their love for convenience is the driving factor behind their excessive single-use plastic packaging use. A survey by the Japanese Government found that 87.2% of Japanese citizens were interested in combatting global environmental issues (Cabinet Office, Government of Japan, 2016), yet individual citizens create around 36kgs of plastic waste (UNEP, 2018). This may seem small compared to Australia’s 107kgs of plastic waste per capita (Department of the Environment and Energy, 2016), but Japan’s total population is roughly five times that of Australia’s. The culmination of waste across their larger population creates an excessive amount of plastic waste that completely eclipses larger countries such as India and China.

Most Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores offer free plastic bags, no matter the size of the purchase. In fact, they often have different coloured bags to separate hot and cold items, whilst offering convenient, plastic-wrapped items such as chopsticks, cutlery, and wet napkins for free. Although most people in Japan believe they are environmentally concerned, they rarely re-use plastic bags and excessively consume free bags offered by stores (Ohtomo & Ohnuma, 2014). In comparison, 91% of the Australian population is concerned about the environment and sustainability, and most people bring reusable or biodegradable bags for shopping due to bans on single-use plastics (HP & Planet Ark, 2018). Bamberg, Ajzen, and Schmidt (2003), describe interventional approaches to reducing plastic bag consumption as one of the easiest ways for individuals to begin altering to pro-environmental behaviours; yet, despite the small effort required to bring reusable shopping bags, very few people participate in this eco-friendly alternative (Convery, McDonnell, & Ferreira, 2007; Ayalon, Goldrath, Rosenthal, & Grossman, 2009).

In Japan, cashiers do not ask whether consumers would like a plastic bag, they simply assume they would. Due to this, consumers must consciously make the decision to decline plastic bags and actively refuse them (Ohtomo & Ohnuma, 2014). Many Japanese people do not decline these bags, instead opting for the convenience they offer and the least confrontational route of not declining a service, leading to a habituation of plastic bag consumption (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000; Ohtomo & Ohnuma, 2014). Japan’s reliance on convenience and the development of plastic bag consumption as a habit has led to the discrepancy between Japan’s pro-environment concerns and their anti-environment actions.

Japan has been consistently adjusting their waste management system in reaction to global environmental concerns, leading to a system that is more accurate and advanced than Australia’s. Amimiya (2018) discusses how Japanese society has been slowly drifting towards a sustainable waste management system in response to various environmental problems; in fact, they have been making consistent changes since the 1992 United Nations Environment Summit, where environmental concerns were first discussed on a large scale (Earth Summit, 1992). In 2000, Japan introduced the Basic Act on Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society (Amimiya, 2018; Ministry of the Environment, Japan [MOE], 2014), focussed on changing the lifestyles, production systems, and social systems in Japan to encourage a more sustainable society. This system has been so successful that they have reduced the amount of industrial waste being disposed of by 86% since 1992 (MOE, 2014).

The largest section of the plastic market is dedicated to plastic packaging designed for immediate disposal (Plastics Europe, 2013; Jambeck, et. al., 2015), and Japan is notorious for their luxurious over-packaging. Although Japan’s plastic waste generation completely eclipses Australia’s, their waste management is more effective, with only 3.4% of their total waste making it to landfill (Amemiya, 2018)—the least preferred method for disposing of waste (NSW Environment Protection Agency [NSW EPA], 2017)—compared to Australia’s 40% (Department of the Environment and Energy, 2013).

Amimiya (2018) states that 98% of Japan’s municipal waste is incinerated. Incineration facilities have been a cause for debate for many years, due to the airborne chemicals associated with incinerating plastics; however, Japan’s advanced incineration technology has reduced dioxin emissions by nearly 100% since 1997 (MOE, 2014). In fact, incinerating waste is more preferred than landfilling, as ranked by the official waste management hierarchy system (NSW EPA, 2017). Japan’s waste management system is better equipped than Australia’s for long-term sustainability, and Australia should look towards Japan’s innovative waste consumption technology to improve their own sustainability.

Although Japan’s waste management system is exceptionally accurate and incineration technology has reduced the amount of plastic waste being landfilled, their excessive plastic use still has negative impacts on the environment. Plastic is extremely durable and very little of the plastic generated worldwide is actually recycled (Hopewell, Dvorak, & Kosior, 2009); due to this, plastic items intentionally and accidentally make their way into the ocean via waterways.

Henderson Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the world’s most remote uninhabited islands, was found to have 37.7 million plastic items washed up on its shores, of which 18.1% originated from Japan (Lavers & Bond, 2017). More than five trillion microplastic pieces­—plastics varying in sizes between 0.3mm and 5mm (GESAMP, 2016)—can be found on the surface of the world’s oceans (Eriksen, et al., 2014). Microplastics are created when larger plastic items break and degrade, often via sand erosion as they are washed onto and off shores. These small plastics have been listed as one of the leading environmental impacts of plastic (United Nations Environment Programme, 2014) due to the risk of toxic chemicals reaching humans after eating seafood which has consumed these toxic microplastics (Thompson, Moore, Vom Saal, & Swan, 2009; Rochman, et al., 2015; Wright & Kelly, 2017).

In fact, the East Asian ocean surrounding Japan has 27 times more microplastics than the world’s average (Isobe, Uchida, Tokai, & Iwasaki, 2015). Some studies have even claimed that microplastics in the ocean will continue to grow, since they never truly degrade (Yamashita, Takada, Fukuwaka, & Watanuki, 2011; Rochman, Hoh, Kurobe, & Teh, 2013; Wright, Thompson, & Galloway, 2013). Plastic and plastic pollution in waterways, whether accidental or intentional (such as fishing boats throwing broken nets overboard), have some of the largest environmental impacts globally. For a country whose protein of choice is seafood—each Japanese citizen consumes 56.9kgs of seafood per year, compared to the world average of 16.7kgs (Japanese Fisheries Agency, 2011)—Japan should be working harder to combat the growing oceanic microplastics by becoming leaders in the movement for lower global plastic consumption. These facts prove that even a country with exceptional waste management like Japan can still negatively affect the environment through excessive plastic use.

When comparing Japan to Australia based solely on first-impressions, many Australian travellers believe Japan's plastic-use and recycling rate is worse than that of Australia. Many even believe that Japanese citizens and the Japanese Government do not care about the impact single-use plastics have on the environment. Yet, when comparing the facts, Japan may use more plastic, but their efforts in accurate waste management and alternative forms of waste consumption have actually put them in front of Australia in terms of pro-environmental waste management and reduction.

The conscientious dedication of the Japanese population has created a system where very little plastic packaging waste makes it into the environment; however, plastic waste in the environment is growing yearly, and countries like Japan and Australia with advanced waste management need to reduce plastic waste to combat the waste produced in less developed countries.

Japan’s reliance on convenient single-use packaging is not only detrimental to the environment, but also to their own health: Japan’s demand for seafood is the highest in the world, yet the microplastics found in the East Asian seas surrounding Japan are also some of the highest in the world. For Japan to continue towards a sustainable future, they need to reduce the demand for plastic in their country, not simply improve the recycling and waste management of plastic as they have been doing so.

Australia should look to Japan as waste management inspiration and reduce the percentage of waste ending in landfills; however, Japan should follow Australia’s footsteps and introduce bans on single-use plastics to combat their higher per capita plastic wastage.


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