For those who still take in movies at theaters it’s a great season for garbage, and I’m not talking about the usual summer blockbuster fare. Last month, Fatih Akin’s documentary “Garbage in the Garden of Eden” (aka “Polluting Paradise”), about a landfill project in the beautiful Cambrunu region of Turkey, opened in Tokyo, and later this month, “Trashed,” a film that addresses refuse, particularly plastic refuse, as a global crisis gets a nationwide release. While Akin’s film shows how uncontrolled waste-management policies can quickly and irreversibly destroy an entire community, “Trashed,” produced and presented by Jeremy Irons, explains that the planet is already suffering the effects of our increasingly disposable culture in the form of polluted oceans and atmosphere. As Irons points out so convincingly, there is almost no place left to put our rubbish.
Another documentary slated to open in Tokyo later this month, “Taste the Waste,” focuses on one form of refuse that is especially relevant to Japan: food. Though this German movie looks mainly at the issue in Europe, it travels east to see what’s going on in the world’s third largest economy. Consumer habits are at the root of the problem, but commerce is the main culprit since food production and distribution systems have adopted practices that make food loss unavoidable. Some of these practices have been mandated by authorities, usually in the name of food safety, but most arose out of perceived marketing necessity. The movie shows how in Japan as well as Europe (though not so much in America) wholesalers and retailers insist on uniformity in appearance for fresh food and constantly full shelves for processed foods. As a result, almost half the food produced for European consumers is thrown out before it even reaches the cashier. In 2010, it is estimated that the amount of edible food in Europe that ended up in the garbage could have fed “all the hungry people in the world” two times over.
In Japan, where media and industry conspire to convince people that they deserve only the best when it comes to eating, consumers are perhaps more sensitive to the problem of food waste, owing to memories of a time when going to bed hungry was not uncommon for the majority of the population. Also, Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate of 40 percent is the lowest in the developed world, which means the bulk of Japan’s food is imported and expensive. And yet a third of it ends up in the trash, which is less than the portion thrown away in Europe but still scandalous in light of the mottainai (“what a waste”) sentiment that has traction on the Japanese consciousness. TV is almost schizophrenic on the subject, on the one hand wallowing in food porn for the masses and on the other presenting shows in which celebrities are tasked with feeding themselves on very limited budgets.
“Taste the Waste” looks at Japan’s system of recycling retail food waste as fertilizer and livestock feed, a method that hasn’t seen much support overseas because of fear of things like BSE. Six years ago, Seven & I Holdings started taking raw food waste from its Ito Yokado supermarkets and Seven-Eleven convenience stores and turning it into fertilizer for farms that grow produce for its outlets. It’s a helpful idea but nevertheless accepts a situation — throwing out food — that is morally indefensible, and while greater personal responsibility on the part of consumers is the most desirable solution, a more immediately achievable one would be tightening distribution. Seventeen million tons of food is thrown away in Japan every year, almost half of which is “food loss,” meaning products thrown away before they’re sold to consumers.
According to a recent series in the Asahi Shimbun, the food industry follows the so-called one-third rule, which is not a legal regulation but rather a “custom” begun in the 1990s. Say that a particular product has a six-month expiration period from the date of manufacture. The wholesaler must sell it to a retailer within two months of manufacture, or one-third of the expiration period. The retailer in turn must sell the product within two months of the date it received the item from the wholesaler. Thereafter the retailer can either send it back to the wholesaler or discount it, even though there may be up to two months left before the sell-by date.
Not all resellers follow this rule, but plenty do and every year manufacturers end up taking back ¥114 billion worth of food, of which only 16 percent is resold through other channels. The rest is thrown away, even though it is perfectly safe to eat. The accepted reasons for this custom is that manufacturers overproduce so as to not be caught short in case demand spikes, and retailers assume that consumers will buy products with the latest sell-by date, so when a new shipment arrives they remove the same product that’s already on their shelves. In any case, Japan’s expiration periods are up to 50 percent shorter than expiration periods in other developed countries.
Tokyo Shimbun reports that 35 resellers are reviewing the one-third rule with the aim of extending the sell-by portion from a third of the expiration period to a half for beverages and processed foods. Some manufacturers have already made this change. The expiration period for beer is usually nine months, but Asahi and Kirin have extended the shipping deadline by one month, the result being that many of their warehouses have been able to clear inventory.
In addition to cutting down on waste, such changes also lower shipping costs, which ties into another economic consideration. Companies factor food loss into their prices, so consumers pay for it. If distribution were streamlined, food would theoretically be cheaper. What that means for Abenomics, which is counting on higher prices to fuel inflation, no one can say, but it could leave more profit to be channeled into higher wages. Or is that hoping for too much?
“Taste the Waste” opens Sept. 21 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and nationwide thereafter. “Trashed” opens Sept. 28 at Cinema Rise in Shibuya and other theaters nationwide.