AGNES CHONG WRITES — Can the Plastic Resource Circulation Strategy put an end to the extensive amount of plastic embedded in Japan’s food culture?

In Japan, food has both cultural and gastronomic appeal. A key element of the national food is its appearance, emphasizing arrangement and stylization as well as quality.

But a recent article by The Washington Post details the culture of plastic use that has become deeply embedded in Japan’s everyday consumerism, as grocery store staples such as bagels and bananas, wrapped in elaborate packaging, have become add-on symbols of Japanese tradition.

It is not uncommon to see fruits and vegetables embellished and sealed in individual plastic wrap. This appeals to Japanese consumers through concepts such as “omotenashi,” which prioritizes customer satisfaction as standard practice. Plastic is seen as an affordable and hygienic symbol of both quality food products and customer respect.

The problem, though, is that Japan is Asia’s biggest packaging waste producer, The Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a non-profit organization that focuses on global environmental concerns, reports that the average Japanese person uses as many as 450 plastic shopping bags each year – more than one bag per day. As of January 2022, containers and packaging made up over 50% of the plastic waste in Japan. Worse, only 23% of the plastic waste is recycled, and over 80% is burned in a process called thermal recycling.

Recently, the government established a Plastic Resource Circulation strategy to help combat these emissions, with this goal: “to turn all existing plastic packaging and goods to be either reusable or recyclable by 2025. By 2030, it aims to reuse or recycle 60% of all plastic containers and packaging, slash single-use plastic emissions by one-fourth and start introducing less polluting bioplastic. By 2035, officials want to reuse or recycle all plastic waste in Japan.”

This plastic reduction trend is valued by both government and the public. According to Kyodo News, the Japanese have started to become more conscious of their shopping habits, often making the extra effort to buy reusable containers and unpackaged foods. A specialty store that opened in 2020, called Poco Muncho, has dedicated itself to selling items by weight as opposed to adding on the mass, individual plastic packaging that is used for Japanese produce.

Working together, then, the country has become devoted to the concept of reducing plastic waste. This benefits the country as well as the global environment. But while small independent businesses are doing their part, powerful corporate influences in the country’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry are standing in their way.  As The Washington Post reports, “On plastics, as on much else, they are deeply resistant to change.”

Ultimately, the question is: Can the Japanese people, and the government triumph over big business to help us all create a better world environment?

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