Anyone following recent coverage of the worldwide plastic waste crisis may note a contradiction in the reporting on Japan’s place in the discussion. On the one hand, Japan boasts a very high plastic recycling rate owing to local governments’ sorting rules, which are some of the strictest in the world. Many countries would benefit from studying Japan’s garbage collection and processing practices. On the other hand, the amount of microplastic waste in the seas immediately surrounding Japan is as much as 27 times greater as the amount in the world’s oceans on average.

According to a Forbes Japan article that was published in January, Japan’s recycling efforts are not exactly what they seem. Officially, Japan recycles 84 percent of the plastic it collects, one of the highest rates in the world, but the government designates three types of recycling processes: material, chemical and thermal. Material recycling means the plastic itself is reprocessed into new plastic — PET bottles, for instance, are made into new PET products. This is probably the image of recycling that most people have. Chemical recycling means that plastic waste is broken down into its constituent components, which are then recombined to make new plastic materials. Thermal recycling means that the plastic is burned in incinerators to produce energy.

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