It’s 2020 and the planet needs your help. So does Japan, which ranked as the most affected country by climate change in 2018, according to the most recent Global Climate Risk Index report.
Japan is making strides to address climate change. The government kicked off its SDG Future Cities project in the past couple of years, and last summer the island of Iki in Nagasaki Prefecture became the first municipality in Japan to declare a climate emergency. Activism is also on the rise after 5,000 people joined climate strikes nationwide in September, but when looking at the numbers in other countries, Japan’s pale by comparison.
For a country that prides itself on recycling, its contribution to global plastic waste is enormous. Japan is the second-highest producer of plastic packaging per capita after the United States.
As we head into a new year and a new decade, it’s time to think about what we can do to help. Japan offers a lot of opportunities for individuals to do their part — no matter how small — but sometimes it can be a little difficult to decode the systems in place.
Reuse, reuse, reuse
Japan has 3 million vending machines nationwide, making it more convenient to keep buying plastic bottles than it is to refill them. However, that may be changing. Purchase a reusable water bottle and download the new MyMizu app to find free, public places to get refills. The app provides a map of drinking fountains as well as restaurants, cafes and other businesses that have agreed to supply free water. It also provides the options to add new spots. In addition to a water bottle, buying a thermos for coffee or tea will also make a difference, and many cafes offer discounts for those who bring their own cup.
Reusable shopping bags are an excellent way to reduce plastic bag waste, and shops will often give you a ¥2 discount on top. Fold one up so you have it handy for when you stop off at the supermarket on the way home from work. And, next time you’re at the convenience store, tell the staff you’re OK to carry the carton of milk you just bought via three handy phrases: “fukuro wa irimasen” (“I don’t need a bag”), “tēpu de ii/daijōbu desu” (“just a piece of tape is good/OK”) or “sono mama de ii/daijōbu desu” (“just like that is good/OK”).
The potential for plastic reduction doesn’t stop at bottles and bags, however. Around 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used every year in Japan. Buying a pair of reusable chopsticks would be an effective way to start reducing that number. You can do the same with straws, utensils and facemasks. For those who cook, there is also something called beeswax wrap, which is a sustainable alternative to plastic wrap, and, of course, you could always use Tupperware.
Get to know your garbage
One of the trickiest things to avoid in Japan is single-use plastics on everyday products. Everything is wrapped in at least one layer of plastic: bananas, utensils, nail polish … the list goes on. The amount of microplastics in the seas immediately surrounding the country is as much as 27 times greater than the global average, and most of that waste is coming from Japan itself with a chunk of it being that unnecessary plastic wrap.
Every neighborhood in the country has a different set of rules when it comes to tossing things out, so start by learning what the separation guidelines are where you live and where you work. Create a place at home to divide all these things more easily and get separate bins for each category. For example, in my neighborhood it’s necessary to put recyclable paper in paper bags.
A few easy things to overlook: For PET bottles and other containers, rip off the label and take off the cap before discarding them; plastic containers, wrapping, bottles and cans need to be clean in order to be recycled; and photos, paper cups, paper scraps and pizza delivery boxes don’t count as paper. You can recycle milk cartons with paper as long as you break the carton down first.
Take a moment to get to know your community spaces. Supermarkets will sometimes have bins specifically for used cartons or plastic bento trays at the front of the store and some city halls have places to recycle electronics.
It is also important to note that while Japan gets international praise for its recycling process, it’s not as efficient as it seems. Japan’s recycling rate is 84 percent, which is one of the highest in the world. However, 73 percent of that is “thermal” recycling, which means it gets burned and is put toward new energy. That’s where your “burnables” are going. The incineration process releases greenhouse gases that contribute to pollution.
The best way to reduce waste is to buy fewer things wrapped in plastic.
Save the fish
In 2017, Japan imported the second largest amount of fish and fishery products in the world and was by far the biggest consumer of Pacific bluefin tuna (maguro). Conservation groups called on Japan to follow international agreements to reduce catches of the tuna in an effort to save the species from extinction. The country is now begrudgingly following the quota, but proposes increases each year.
Conveyor-belt sushi (kaitenzushi) is convenient, fun and cheap, but there are a lot of plates that go uneaten. Instead of going to a classic kaitenzushi spot, try one where you can order only what you want on an iPad. Genki Sushi is one such chain that has spots all over Japan.
Vegan and vegetarian food is also becoming more popular and easier to access in the major cities. Happy Cow is a helpful online resource for finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Japan, and Facebook is filled with groups that cater to dietary needs. Producing meat contributes to pollution, so anything you can do to reduce your intake will also help the environment. If you don’t want to give up meat entirely, join the many people opting to go “flexitarian” as a compromise: Don’t give up meat, just eat less of it.
Shop at secondhand stores
The fashion industry produces 10 percent of all humanity’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of the world’s water supply. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. With speed and low costs as priorities, fast fashion in particular isn’t taking time to focus on environmentally safe practices.
While you might not be able to change the system, you can change how much you feed into it. Textile waste exacerbates the issue as retailers need to keep drawing in shoppers with new styles.
Choose recycled content when you can. Some retailers, such as Patagonia, are making clothing out of plastic bottles as well as 100 percent organic cotton T-shirts or a blend of recycled cotton and recycled polyester.
Another good option is secondhand stores. You can find them all over Tokyo and, in addition to being more environmentally conscious, they are also often cheaper and more stylish. Take a trip to Shimokitazawa or Kichijoji to find a selection of vintage stores.
Outside of fashion, you can find books, video games, movies and more at Book Off, a chain that buys and sells used goods. Book Off has sister stores such as Hard Off, for used electronics, hardware and instruments; and Mode Off, which has clothing. These stores can be especially good resources when first moving to Japan.
Gift-giving and omiyage (souvenirs) are both part of another area of Japanese culture that can lead to a lot of plastic waste. An increasing number of gift stores are popping up that focus on sustainable gifts, however. I Was A Kimono provides jewelry and other accessories made out of used kimono fabric, Katakana in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka neighborhood has a range of Japanese and international gifts from chopsticks to fashion and food. Also check out 2k540 Artisan Shops in the capital’s Akihabara district. The mini shopping mall has a variety of small shops by local designers who are focused on sustainable creations. Maito sells clothing and accessories that are hand-dyed using natural ingredients.
Incorporating sustainability into your everyday regimen can be overwhelming. Don’t try to do everything at once — learning to recycle correctly is a part-time job on its own. Start small and slowly weave these practices into your daily routine. As you start a new year, make the environment part of your personal resolution.
The time for talk is over, take action
There are several groups in Tokyo dedicated to environmental activism. If you have some extra time after work or on the weekend, there are ways you can help the movement.
Greenpeace Japan: A global organization that numbers 15,000 volunteers around the world. Volunteer to do anything from painting signs to organizing local marches. Some offices will provide training to people interested in taking their activism further.
Fridays for Future Tokyo: This is one of the many offshoots of Greta Thunburg’s global climate movement. FFFT organizes climate strikes you can join, encourages working with other groups and, if you’re up for it, taking the lead on organizing your own movement.
No Coal Japan: A global campaign that aims to stop Japan from funding more coal-fired power stations. Sign up to help bolster the campaign.
Tokyo River Friends: Join a weekly effort to get plastics out of Tokyo’s Edogawa and Arakawa rivers. Check out tokyoriverfriends.org for the time and place of its next meetup.
Friends of the Earth Japan: FoE Japan focuses on making policy recommendations and campaigning. It has groups all over Japan that you can join, and provides the platform to create a local chapter. It also publishes a handbook that will help guide you on starting citizen activities in your area and connecting to the broader network of groups.
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