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.
Twenty-three percent of collected plastic is recycled materially and just 4 percent is recycled chemically. The remainder is burned. Other countries do not consider burning to be a recycling process. In fact, burning plastic is frowned upon in many places. The problem with material recycling is that the material itself is degraded when it is recycled, so there’s a limit to its efficiency. Chemical recycling requires a lot of energy and resources, so it is uneconomic. Thermal recycling is possible because plastic is derived from crude oil. They burn easily and produce lots of electricity, but also have the same negative environmental impact as fossil fuels.
So while designating plastic incineration as a form of recycling isn’t an outright lie, it is arguably misleading in terms of the desired outcome, which is less pollution. Of course, the thermal recycling situation doesn’t explain the high level of microplastics in the sea surrounding Japan, but it does indicate a measure of the sheer volume of plastic that Japan throws away.
Consequently, the challenge for Japan in eliminating plastic is greater than it is in many other countries, especially since China, which used to receive most of Japan’s plastic destined for material recycling, no longer imports plastic waste. Media outlets in Japan have been doing their part to promote trends that would alleviate our reliance on plastic, but it’s mainly been in a piecemeal fashion — finding alternatives to plastic drinking straws, carrying reusable water bottles and shopping bags. A recent online article in the online business magazine Diamond described new, more sustainable materials to replace plastics.
NHK went further. Copying a common variety show format where TV personalities cut back on something for a designated period of time, the producers of the in-depth news show “Closeup Gendai Plus” asked one of their directors to live without any plastic for three weeks. The conditions were strict: Not only did he have to forgo plastic packaging, but also anything that contained plastic. The crew went through his apartment and removed anything with plastic in it, including his futon and much of his clothing (acrylic fibers), toiletries and appliances.
As the director struggled to adjust, NHK talked about the ubiquity of plastic and its advantages. Plastic film is essential for keeping perishable foods edible and retains graphics more readily. Although this latter aspect sounds trivial, it has significantly changed the shape of retailing. In the past, shops would have to explain the items they sold — the ingredients, methods of preparation — but with plastic packaging these explanations could be incorporated into the products themselves in a clear and edifying way. As a result, safety and efficiency were achieved and normalized.
The director had to seek out food vendors who sold their wares without plastic packaging, which turned out to be a chore. Some fishmongers and greengrocers supposedly still use newspaper as wrapping and wooden receptacles, but he had trouble finding any. He bought his own reusable containers for coffee and water and used cloth bags for food shopping, but several days into his endeavor he had to revise the criteria of the challenge since he found he couldn’t make a living, much less get through the day, without his appliances, cash cards and, especially, eyeglasses.
At the end of the three weeks he had produced 39 grams of plastic waste. The average Japanese person generates 1.8 kilograms during the same period, so the experiment was a qualified success. However, it was the attendant changes to his thinking that were noteworthy. He had become closer to his community because he had to make greater demands on merchants and neighbors to get through his ordeal, demands that were met with interest and understanding. Moreover, his fixation on cutting back became ingrained. He is now emotionally attached to his water tumbler. NHK mentioned a study that found by simply “paying attention” to plastic, a person can reduce their use of it by almost half without much effort.
In truth, such challenges are less meaningful if a person’s entire environmental impact is not taken into consideration. Laundering acrylic fabrics produces microplastic waste, but switching to natural fabrics such as cotton and wool comes with different problems because of the harmful chemicals, not to mention the massive amount of water, used in their production. In the end, the main takeaway of the NHK challenge is that plastic is just one part of the overall issue, which is that we consume way too much of everything.