How green are Japan's urbanites?

The Group of Eight summit began Monday at the Windsor Hotel Toya, an exquisite, maximum- security resort in Hokkaido. There, the world’s top leaders are holed up in conference rooms, trying to strike last-minute deals on various global issues, the most disputed of all being climate change.

Though these leaders are facing enormous pressure to “save the Earth,” so are the rest of us. How many times, after all, have we been told by environmentalists to turn off this light or refill those shampoo bottles? How many times, standing in line at a supermarket, have we suddenly felt guilty, realizing we’ve forgotten to bring one of our growing collection of “eco-bags”?

Still, each of these personal gestures can make a difference. So for all those guilt-ridden readers, here is a reminder of how they help. The Japan Times’ list of 10 green activities anyone can engage in is also a chance to check out how the Japanese consumer stacks up against others around the world.

Cool Biz

“Cool Biz,” the program of no-tie, no-jacket summer attire first advocated by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2005 so that people can withstand more mildly air-conditioned offices in the summer, has spread throughout the nation, making it one of the nation’s most successful green initiatives. At the outset, many of Japan’s suited types struggled to keep from becoming complete fashion disasters — a vernacular weekly once caught Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Taro Aso tieless and wildly revealing his chest in the Diet and called him “a cheap club host.” But thanks to the movement, many offices now keep their thermostats at 28 C over the summer. Cool Biz saved Japan an estimated 1.14 million tons of carbon dioxide in fiscal 2006, which equals the amount emitted by 2.5 million households in a month.

Shorter showers

It might sound petty, but the Environment Ministry is calling for more people to turn off the shower every time they shampoo their heads and scrub their bodies. The ministry says the move would add up to a reduction of 69 kg of carbon dioxide per three-person family a year, assuming that each person turns off the faucet by one minute a day (on average, families produce about 5.3 tons of COe per year). A survey released in June by the ad agency Hakuhodo found that more than two-thirds of 800 people polled in and around Tokyo and Osaka already practice this.

Green homes

The smaller your home, the less energy you need, goes the green logic. So the notorious “rabbit hutches” and “pencil buildings” that Japan’s urbanites put up with would seem to be a green choice already. Yet in a recent poll of consumers from 14 countries by National Geographic and the international polling firm GlobeScan, Japanese houses were found to be the second-least sustainable, only outranking ones in the United States. A heavy reliance on oil for heating, little insulation, few energy-saving furnaces/appliances installed and limited use of renewable energies are to blame for Japan’s dismal ranking.

Eco bags

Japan has a gift- wrapping tradition that is epitomized in the variety of ways in which people wrap objects with furoshiki (a large piece of cloth). But it has also spawned a less favorable culture of over-wrapping, and shoppers are routinely given plastic bags for even the tiniest purchases, or bags within bags. Fortunately, a grassroots campaign over the last few years to promote cotton or vinyl “eco bags” among shoppers has taken off. Nearly 75 percent of 251 housewives from Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi prefectures responding to a May survey by Mizkan Group Corp., a major vinegar and seasoning maker, said that they carry eco bags around daily. A 2005 Cabinet Office survey of some 1,896 people shows a more conservative picture, though: Only 23.2 percent said they refuse plastic and vinyl bags at stores. In addition to the difference made by refusing bags, by choosing fresh foods that have not been packaged in plastic trays or wrapped with aluminum foil, each Japanese household could save another 58.3 kg of COe, which would mean a 1.1 percent reduction in emissions of the greenhouse gas.

Reduce waste

Does recycling curb global warming? It depends. Recycling of paper and PET bottles can cut carbon emissions only if it comes with a less wasteful lifestyle. The 2005 Cabinet Office survey showed that 73.4 percent of the 1,896 respondents said they participate in recycling programs for milk cartons, PET bottles, cans and other recyclables, but only 45 percent replied that they try to produce less waste. Likewise, only 28 percent said they avoid buying disposable products. According to the Council for PET Bottle Recycling, of the 544,000 tons of PET bottles that Japan consumed in fiscal 2006, 66.3 percent, or 361,000 tons, were collected for recycling. PET bottles are shredded into flakes which are used to make fibers for clothes, carpets and containers and more. In 2006, only 12,600 tons were recycled as PET bottles — a process that some experts say consumes more energy (thus saves less carbon) than when the bottles are turned into fiber.

Remove electric cords from their sockets

Pinching pennies saves the environment. The Environment Ministry says electricity consumed by VCRs, TVs, audio players and microwaves when they are not in use amounts to 7 percent of the bill. Pulling electrical cords out of wall sockets every time you finish using these appliances would not only make you green but also get you a dinner at reasonably fancy restaurant once a year by saving ¥3,388.

Use public transportation or drive green

For most people in Japan, especially those who work in big cities, commuting by car is simply not an option, with many narrow and one-way streets, too much congestion, a shortage of parking space and the high costs of owning and maintaining a vehicle. Japan also has an extensive and easy-to-use train system that mostly runs on schedule. A Hakuhodo survey released in May of residents in eight major cities around the world, including Tokyo, New York and Paris, found that 82.6 percent of Tokyoites surveyed said they “always or often” get to their destinations by walking, riding bicycles and using trains and buses rather than using cars and taxis, ahead of the international eight- city average of 76.6 percent.

Eat food produced locally and in season

Eating local produce is key to cutting COe emissions, as distributing food from afar requires vehicles that consume fossil fuel. According to the Hakuhodo comparison of residents in eight major cities, 37 percent of Tokyoites said they buy locally produced food to stop global warming, which is far lower than the average for urbanites of 71.3 percent. Japan’s low food self-sufficiency rate of 39 percent, as of 2006, means that many foods are imported from overseas. Another way to eat green is to choose vegetables and fruits grown outdoors, because off-season foods are often grown in greenhouses, which require fuel to keep them warm.

Get political

In the same Hakuhodo survey, the Tokyoites were found to be the least or second- least active in categories ranging from donating to green causes to participating in reforestation and local tree-planting activities. A separate survey which came out in June, of 800 people in and around Tokyo and Osaka by the same agency, studied their participation in 20 common green activities. Only 3 percent of the respondents — the smallest percentage for any category — said they support or participate in environmental NGOs. The poll shows that many people in Japan separate trash, buy refills of shampoo/conditioner products and turn off the light switches often, but do not engage in political action or seek out green energies.

Invest green

You can help the environment by investing in ecofriendly financial products. One way is through “eco-funds,” investment trusts consisting of stocks and bonds of companies selected for both business and environmental performances. The Hakuhodo survey of city dwellers worldwide showed that 12 percent of the Tokyoites polled have green financial products such as mutual funds compared with the eight-city average of 27 percent. And while the balance of such funds has increased over the past decade, the actual asset value in Japan remains small compared with those in other developed countries. The value of all eco-funds in Japan as of June 2007 stood at ¥274 billion, compared with ¥210 trillion in the U.S. and ¥20 trillion in Britain, according to Takamitsu Sawa, professor at Ritsumeikan University’s Graduate School of Policy Science.

Coronavirus banner