In a country drowning itself in plastic, the creators of a new app called MyMizu are attempting to change seemingly entrenched views and cultural norms regarding sustainability.
It’s a challenge the creators acknowledge, but they believe they are making inroads. Two weeks after the release of the app, which provides a map of places in Japan where water can be obtained for free, it already has more than 8,000 stations logged and over 5,000 downloads.
MyMizu helps people find free, public spots to get water. In addition to drinking fountains, it also shows restaurants, cafes and other businesses that have agreed to provide free refills. As spots are discovered or developed, users can add them to the database.
The app has particular relevance to Japan, which, despite its reputation for recycling and cleanliness, produces the second-highest amount of plastic packaging per capita after the United States, according to a 2018 United Nations sustainability report. It has had a particularly difficult time managing waste since China banned imports of plastic waste in 2017.
With 3 million vending machines nationwide, Japan makes it extremely convenient to purchase bottled drinks — but not very easy to find places to refill the empty bottles or avoid their use altogether.
“There is a lack of refill points,” said Robin Lewis, 31, co-founder of MyMizu. “If you walk around Shinjuku Station, you can’t find one. We aren’t just trying to map them out, but engage cafes and restaurants to become refill stations.”
And with a record-hot Olympics set for next summer, refill stations will be more essential to controlling waste than ever before.
Lewis and MyMizu co-founder Mariko McTier, 30, estimate that if each of the expected 9 million attendees buys four bottles per day, the total across the Olympics and Paralympics will exceed 110 million in six weeks.
The organizing committee for the games said it is always looking for ways to reduce waste, but doesn’t plan to work with local startups like MyMizu.
“It is rather difficult for us as the Organising Committee to work together with startups like these during the Games as our operational areas are quite strictly delineated,” the committee said in a statement.
Coca-Cola Japan, the primary sponsor, announced initiatives to improve recycling and packaging by 2022 and 2030, respectively. However, it has not mentioned any plans to reduce the use of plastic during the Tokyo Games.
Coca-Cola Japan spokesperson Masaki Iida said the company is working with the Tokyo 2020 committee on sustainable practices, but would not disclose any details at this time.
Coca-Cola North America started testing self-serve water refill stations with flavor and carbonation options in 2017 and installed them at some U.S. universities. However, these initiatives are not being followed in Japan.
“We at Coca-Cola Japan are not familiar with (these actions),” Iida said in an email. But “we are always focusing on local market and customer/consumer needs.”
Still, the early days of MyMizu have shown more consumer interest than expected.
Since the app was released on Sept. 20, users have added 548 refill stations to the existing 8,000, and 56 of those were businesses as of Wednesday. Available in both English and Japanese, 60 percent of the downloads have come through the Japanese site.
“A lot of people are saying that this is what they’ve been waiting for,” said McTier.
This was surprising to the creators, given the comparative lack of environmental activism in Japan. At the global climate march on Sept. 20, less than 3,000 people protested in Tokyo compared with some 270,000 in Berlin and 250,000 in New York.
“One of our observations is that Japan doesn’t have the same level of engagement in, for example, demonstrations of dissent or disagreement with how things are done, because society isn’t geared toward raising people’s voices,” McTier said. “But if you give people an option to do things differently, they will.”
In addition to adding refill spots, some people are also taking the initiative to ask restaurants and cafes to join. Lewis and McTier are calling these people “self-proclaimed MyMizu volunteers.”
“That kind of level of engagement was really exciting for us.” McTier said. “It’s going to be a huge database.”
But despite its early success, the founders are aware that systemic change will require more than providing a map.
McTier says that when asked to refill a bottle, some cafes pour the drink into a plastic cup first and then into the bottle.
“Several cafes in Tokyo don’t even have reusable cups and glasses,” she said.
Lewis and McTier are addressing this by providing workshops at businesses and schools nationwide about sustainability and the safety of tap water. They’re also setting up chapters in different cities and are in discussions with local governments to create formal partnerships.
“We provide the infrastructure and platform and governments have the community,” Lewis said.
They’re also not alone in their efforts. Another organization, Refill Japan, has a similar goal of increasing water stations in the country. Their focus is on improving older fountains and installing new ones that provide chilled water and look new and inviting.
“These kinds of emerging initiatives such as MyMizu and Refill Japan are very positive not only to tackle the plastic pollution but also to rethink how we consume and ultimately how we produce,” said Hiroaki Odachi, plastic campaign project leader at Greenpeace Japan.
Beyond Japan, people are uploading refill points to the app in the U.S., United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, Mexico, Australia and Canada, and MyMizu is in discussions to set up a formal chapter in Singapore.
As the app grows in popularity, Lewis and McTier are hopeful companies will notice a demand for sustainable options in Japan.
“Companies have the opportunity and duty to lead this charge and it’s not just a risk, it’s a massive opportunity,” Lewis said. “Look at Patagonia, for example, they are one of the most sustainable companies out there, at least in the Japanese scene, and they are doing incredibly well. Companies that are taking the leap are doing phenomenally in many cases.”
Coca-Cola Japan would not say if their business plan would change were they to discover increased demand for water refill stations in Japan.
PET bottles are only a tiny aspect of Japan’s overall waste. And while most of the bottles are recycled and recovered, 10 to 15 percent still fall through the cracks, according to 2017 statistics from The Council for PET Bottle Recycling.
Lewis and McTier see MyMizu as a way to cultivate societal interest in further waste reduction.
“Not buying PET bottles is such a simple step,” said Lewis. “It’s the doorway into everything else. So that’s where the education begins.”