The Plastic People of Japan: How to Upset the Order of a Disposable Society

Note: This is an essay that I wrote as part of an online course run by the University of California at Berkeley ‘Writing for Social Justice’ on the edX online learning platform. You can access the course content by opening this link.

The amount of garbage I found on the beach that morning was actually greater than this photo.
Photo by Lucien Wanda on Pexels.com

I saw a tangible example of the amount of manufactured waste in Japan oceans when I went for my morning run along the boulevard facing Mikawa Bay in Aichi Prefecture on the day after 2019’s Typhoon Hagibis. While mostly paved, the road I ran along converges with a beach area which in turns meets up with the ocean itself. The beach is usually spotless save for the occasional shred of seaweed or bit of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore. To say either of these had washed up on it this morning was an understatement. An expanse of garbage 30 meters in length had been strewn across the beach which stretched eight meters from the water’s edge . It consisted of an immeasurable amount of disposable plastic waste, but also included mannequin heads, American footballs, golf clubs, and childrens’ big wheelers. What laid before me looked similar to the ‘river spirit’ scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 animated masterpiece ‘Spirited Away’. Those who have seen this movie will know what I am writing about. For those who haven’t, there is a scene where an enormous and pungent ‘stink spirit’ enters the bathhouse that the film is set in. The main character, Chihiro, extracts a piece of garbage from it’s side, which in turn causes a massive tidal wave of waste to spew forth. Because the ‘stink spirit’ had been cleansed of the pollution plaguing it’s body, it then revealed itself as a benevolent river spirit. Had I not known about the typhoon, I could have been under the misapprehension that this scene may have been recreated on that very beachfront the previous night.

Plastic pollution in Japan is a major problem, but one most Japanese barely recognize. Plastic packaging in some form is provided in most businesses such as convenience stores, supermarkets or restaurants. This packaging not only comes in the form of ever-conspicuous plastic bags, but also sealed packaging for hand towels, coffee stirrers, PET bottles, lids for hot beverages, food packaging, and protective film for products like cigarettes and chewing gum. A recent article published in the Japan Times showed that the amount of plastic used in individual purchase in a week by the journalist involved was enough to cover a conference table designed to seat roughly sixteen to twenty people.

This pamphlet (資源物・ごみの分別と出し方/Sorting and disposal of recyclable materials and waste
is distributed to all new residents of any neighborhood upon moving in. But is the waste really going where it’s implied to be?

Japan is the second largest producer of plastic waste in the world after the United States, and in theory has strict rules concerning plastics recycling as most locals would know. In reality, the final destination of this ‘recycled’ waste is a cause for concern. According to Greenpeace Japan, 58% of it is designated for ‘thermal recycling’; meaning it is burnt to produce heat and electricity, 14% is sent overseas and the remaining 13% is actually recycled.

The above-mentioned amount is what is collected; it doesn’t account for what is being improperly disposed of. In fact, the amount of plastics being dumped into the sea is more alarming; an amount which is being increased at an annual rate of eight million tonnes per year. This is the equivalent of one dump truck full of garbage going directly into the ocean every minute. The effect of these mountains of plastic being dumped into our marine environments are becoming increasingly measurable. According to a joint study conducted by Greenpeace and Incheon University in South Korea, the amount of microplastics (i.e. abrasives from toothpastes, plastic capsules used in medicine, resin from industrial processes) found in oceans, ranging from the Arctic and spanning through to the Antarctic, has resulted in 90% of the world’s brands of table salt containing this substance.

This transition to a synthetic biosphere isn’t just observable under water. Geologist Paul Crutzen posited in 2000 that we have entered a new geological era where a new layer of the earth has emerged that is marked by clear signs of human influence in the form of ‘degraded agriculture lands, industrial wastelands and recreational landscapes’ that are defined by the plastic, cement and other artificial materials found on their surface. With this still developing layer of earth, one that will most likely be included in the fossil record in 30,000 years time, in mind, Greenpeace Japan has also stated that humans now consume 5 grams of microplastics a week through the food, water and air they consume. Against this backdrop, Japan’s role as a consumer in the global plastic industry is of much consequence.

How does Japan tackle this problem? As has been often said by various environmentalists, we need to think globally, but act locally. Because of Japan’s conservative national ethos, this approach is borne of necessity as I will now explain.

Firstly, we must pursue incremental measures at the meso-level. Some supermarket chains, such as Aeon and Feel, charge one to three yen for plastic bags, but countermeasures will be ineffective unless they are given legal sanction at a local, prefectural and, ultimately, national level. Various measures against plastic in the retail sector have been introduced in countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Korea and Jamaica. Even the conservative Indian government of Modi has promised to abolish all plastic use by 2022 (though it seems to be dragging it’s feet at the national level in the face of perceived economic pressures). Yet the use of plastic rarely comes up during policy discussions at any level in Japan.

An initiative taken within a small community in Tokushima Prefecture provides some hope. Kamikatsu is a village that in 2003 set a goal of producing zero net waste by 2020. As such, all it’s refuse is meticulously sorted and reused wherever possible. This means garbage is neither incinerated nor sent to landfill. A good example of this policy in action is how citizens bring their recyclables to the local waste station to be individually sorted. This more thorough process has expanded the categories of recyclable items in Kamikatsu from 34 in 2002 to 43 in 2015. Turning to the private sector to turn the recycled material into products has also resulted in a verified recycling rate of 81%.

Kamikatsu is not a lone example. Others can be found worldwide. Another is Studsgard★; a community of 250 families in Denmark that has been planned in compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth by the United Nations in 2015. In order to reduce their carbon emissions by 25 to 29% in line with the aforementioned convention, it has actively installed solar panels on all dwellings’ roofs, planted forests and built windmills. In matters more applicable to the problem mentioned in this essay, it has also applied greater oversight to waste management and have set up a community recycling shop. Using Studsgard as a snapshot, it is not surprising to hear that Denmark itself is leading the world in achieving the benchmarks set forth in the SDGs.

A cleaner beach to run along.
Photo by Travis Rupert on Pexels.com

It should be noted that these communities’ initiatives have been implemented on a small scale. Launching them instantaneously in a megalopolis like Tokyo or Osaka would be difficult to achieve either politically or logistically. However, using them as a benchmark to start a conversation about plastic waste is infinitely preferable than letting any form of action to wither and die on the vine. In the past, Japan has avoided difficult conversations about environmental issues up until the point where it has been too late to counteract. The Fukushima number two nuclear incident in 2011 and the outbreak of Minamata Disease in Kumamoto Prefecture in the 1950’s and 60’s come to mind in this respect. However, in a country where the pace of change can be perceived as glacial to outsiders, some progress is better than none at all.

By approaching this problem even incrementally, we would be taking the first step towards pristine oceans, even more picturesque mountain ranges and nature preserves, cleaner drinking water, more robust wildlife and, in short, a healthier ecosystem. Any Japanese person or foreign visitor who has traveled across this beautiful country from the tropical beaches of Okinawa, to the wooded mountains of Hakone in Kanagawa and all the way through to the snowy plains of Hokkaido in the north will tell you that this country is overflowing with an extraordinary amount of natural beauty. By embarking upon the transition to a plastic free society, we can ensure that the next generation will be able to enjoy the same privileges that I have been able to enjoy during the ten years I have been lucky enough to live here. Japan has pulled together to overcome historic calamity and disaster before to ultimately emerge a more progressive and advanced society. I am sure it can do so again in this case.

★ The example of Studsgard was taken from the online course ‘The Sustainable Development Goals’ conducted by the University of Copenhagen on the Coursera online learning platform. You can access the course content by opening this link.

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