Japan’s Plastic Obsession

Posted by Codi Hauka & filed under Pop Culture.

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Photo courtesy of japanesefood.best100japan.com

My family has been recycling/energy/waste conserving junkies since I was a child. Our religion was to follow the three R’s of reuse, reduce, recycle, in the most devout of interpretations. Yet growing up in Vancouver, I would say that the recycling program in there is particularly easy to follow. As long as you flatten your cardboard and separate your three basic piles into your little blue bin, the city recycle crew (or your neighbourhood homeless guy) takes care of the rest. Even if you’re lazily resourceful, Vancouver is one place where Kermit would find it easy to be green.

Then I moved to Japan.

I have heard before that Japan, and other Asian countries, are what one would call “fond” of individually wrapped goods, but I had no idea how far that affinity reached. When you hear that everything must be individually packaged, it must be understood in the most literal sense. If you get a package of cookies, there is the standard exterior packaging with the plastic tray inside to hold the cookies. But once you pull that tray out, every cookie inside is encased in its own plastic wrapper. For every cookie you eat, you’re also throwing away its volume in plastic.

I can understand this phenomenon from a cultural standpoint: Japanese are constantly giving Omiyage (gifts) to one another in an endless cycle of gratitude. If something is not enclosed in plastic (even unattractive cellophane), it is not fit for gifting. This type of anal packaging (all plastic) applies to most food goods, but it is consistently done to almost everything else as well, from household goods to even bicycles. By the time you’ve reached the product, the mountain of plastic you’ve amassed takes up more volume than the good itself. The worst part is, none of this plastic can be recycled.

Perhaps even worse than that, is avoiding this type of waste is nearly impossible unless you yourself produced all the goods you use and consume on a daily basis. It’s as if all inanimate objects have been endowed with a divine sense of modesty and can’t go out in public without clothing, creating the largest amount of pure landfill waste in a Japanese household. Considering that this is a country of small islands, limited space, and few natural resources, it would seem logical to recycle and reuse as much as possible. Yet this is not the case.

If you’ve traveled to Japan recently, one thing that might strike you when walking around is that there are no garbage cans anywhere, yet most cities appear remarkably clean. This is because the garbage disposal system in Japan is a meticulous and strict sorting system that separates waste into three basic categories: combustibles (food waste, mostly), recyclables (cardboard and paper that has not been touched by food), and landfill (all plastics, Styrofoam, and pretty much anything else that doesn’t fit into the former two categories).

Then comes the even harder part: disposing of your garbage after it’s been sorted. Each category has a different, designated drop off point for various dates throughout the month. Missing landfill day is by far the worst since you have to deal with the evolving odors of your waste for another ten days. When you finally get used to the sorting, the sites, and the drop off dates, you have to deal with the people at the disposal sites. These are usually the older members of the community, or the gatekeepers who need to inspect your garbage to see if you’ve separated everything correctly (I did not pass this test my first round). All in all, the ease at which you create garbage in Japan is congruent with how difficult it is to dispose of it here.

Each combustible bag of garbage I create is about one tenth of the size of the landfill pile in my apartment, and there’s only me and my boyfriend here. I would shudder to imagine what the waste coming from a family’s home looks like in Japan. Although everyone precisely follows the garbage system here, recycling is no easy thing, and is a task that few would find incentive in putting an effort into. There are those who try, but the consumer goods industry shows no signs of slowing down their plastic fetish. I can appreciate a strict sorting system for garbage, but only if the separation means that more will be recycled and reused as a result, rather than merely creating the illusion of a spotless and environmentally friendly city. I’ll have my cookies in the buff, onegaishimasu.

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