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It will surprise few to hear Japan is the world’s second-largest generator of plastic waste. You only have to look at an Instagram accounts such as Plastic Obsessed Japan to grasp the issue. Its uploads — such as a single tomato, packed on a styrofoam bed, placed in black plastic tray and wrapped in plastic — criticize the country’s superfluous amount of packaging.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, of the 9 billion tons of plastic that have ever been produced, only 9 percent has been recycled. Japan may have low levels of landfill-bound waste compared to the U.S., the world’s biggest generator of waste per capita as of 2019, but plastic in Japan is often thermally “recycled” for electricity and hot water, and is still produced and used at an alarmingly high rate.

Now, the influx of disposable masks, plastic cutlery and gloves prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic are only adding to the layers of waste. To mitigate the growing issue, last month the Japanese government introduced a mandatory charge in shops for plastic bags, bringing the notion of reducing waste further into the foreground.

Enacting change in everyday lives is key to reducing waste, and a growing number of online communities in Japan are helping people directly tackle the waste they produce. From easy tips to make everyday life more sustainable to opportunities to join a community cleanup, here are some of the groups doing their part for the planet.

Zerowaste.Japan

Zerowaste.Japan is an Instagram account and YouTube channel run by Japanese mother of two, Ran Nomura, who lives with her family in a small apartment in Osaka. Nomura shares tips about reducing waste in everyday life to her more than 148,000 followers. It’s garnered her a number of feature spots in media, from Japanese magazines and newspapers to American lifestyle websites.

“I got into sustainability after reading (Bea Johnson’s 2013 book) ‘Zero Waste Home.’ It really got me thinking about my lifestyle. I learned every choice impacts the planet,” Nomura says. “Many people share their zero-waste knowledge and stories on Instagram. I’m inspired by the #zerowaste community daily. Anyone worldwide can join the zero waste conversation!”

The tips she shares often show something wasteful swapped out for something sustainable — a plastic kitchen scrubber to get rid of grease, for example, substituted with an orange peel.

Sustainable safety: Ditch the single-use masks and switch to cloth. You can disinfect them with scallop shell powder, rinse and hang to dry. | COURTESY OF ZEROWASTE.TOKYO
Sustainable safety: Ditch the single-use masks and switch to cloth. You can disinfect them with scallop shell powder, rinse and hang to dry. | COURTESY OF ZEROWASTE.TOKYO

Zero Waste Japan

Zero Waste Japan, a separate Facebook group founded by Bianca Yamaguchi, provides a place for Japanese residents to share their own stories on zero-waste living, ask for help or advice, and link to local Japanese farmers who send groceries straight to the door, sans excess packaging.

“I started the group in 2015 because there was zero information about zero waste in Japan, both in English and Japanese,” Yamaguchi says. “Except for the Zero Waste Academy’s website (based in Kamikatsu, Tokushima Prefecture), but back then it heavily relied on recycling and was not (strictly) zero waste.”

Since its founding, the group has grown to over 2,500 members.

“For me, personally, and for the people who’ve been active in the group from its first year, it has been crucial,” says Yamaguchi. “(The) group is mostly sustained by foreign residents, so we would really love to see more Japanese locals joining in the future, and even create a group with info exclusively in Japanese.”

Sustainable Living Tokyo

Sustainable Living Tokyo, run by Cecilia Grandi-Nagashiro, is a smaller Facebook group with around 500 members. A doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo, Grandi-Nagashiro’s research focuses on designing effective ways to adopt sustainable lifestyles based on environmental psychology and consumption studies.

She started the group in 2019 to provide knowledge, support and a space for people interested in transitioning to sustainable living. The group hosts workshops utilizing concepts from different disciplines and organizes community-building events focused on increasing the visibility of sustainable living.

“The inspiration came when I realized that immediate action was needed to respond to the climate crisis we are facing,” explains Grandi-Nagashiro. “For a few years now I have been completing my doctoral studies on sustainable consumption. However, I felt that doing research was not enough — I wanted to apply what I was learning and discovering as soon as possible. After some thinking, I thought that the best would be to create this initiative where people could teach, promote, discuss and learn more about sustainable living.”

Edible interiors: You can regrow vegetables from scraps in glass jars — simply fill with water and put in a sunny place, replacing the water once a day. | COURTESY OF ZEROWASTE.TOKYO
Edible interiors: You can regrow vegetables from scraps in glass jars — simply fill with water and put in a sunny place, replacing the water once a day. | COURTESY OF ZEROWASTE.TOKYO

Tokyo River Friends

And helping to clean it all up is Tokyo River Friends. It began in 2017 when founder James Gibbs started cycling alongside Tokyo’s rivers.

“It was just one of those times when you think, someone had to do something about this,” he says. “I got tired of looking at all the trash along the rivers.”

Run by volunteers, the group clears up rubbish around Tokyo Bay and its rivers, sharing snaps of its hard work on Instagram. More than mere tips, this group helps combat the inevitable outcome of Japan’s excess waste by carrying out practical, on-the-ground cleanups; check online for the next scheduled event — no advanced registration required to join.

The areas the team has been working on remain relatively waste-free, but the scale of the issue is larger than people may imagine. “I keep finding new areas in need of cleaning, and the more we clean the more I realize just how big the problem is,” Gibbs adds.

While Gibbs recognizes that Japanese society, by and large, keeps its local communities clean, there are overlooked “orphan areas” such as bays, rivers and beaches. “I recommend people adopt such places in their community and just go and pick up the trash,” says Gibbs. “Joining groups like ours is, of course, a good way, too.”

It may take time for the ideas being spread by these online communities to come into full effect. But as the groups share information and the conversation grows, perhaps the collective effort of these groups will inspire a reconsideration of Japan’s plastic policy.

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