Being from the UK, it felt extremely weird being given about 5 plastic bags for my hand full of items at the grocery store. After 6 months of being here, it still feels just as weird.
When I arrived, I had no idea Japan was known to use so much plastic. On one occasion after I got home from the grocery store and emptied the contents of my plastic carrier bag onto my kitchen table, the realisation hit me. I opened the little plastic baggy that the cashier had put my box of chocolates in. Then I proceeded to open the plastic that surrounded my box of chocolates…opened the cardboard box…removed the plastic segments which separated the recommended serving amount, (of which there were two)…then removed the plastic from each of the five individual pieces of chocolate. I turned to my housemate and said something to the tune of, THIS IS RIDICULOUS!
I’m no eco-warrior, but since then, I have noticed how much plastic is in Japan. If it can be wrapped in plastic, it will be. Individual onions, peppers, cucumbers, even bananas are individually wrapped in plastic.
Plastic straws are individually wrapped in plastic and sold in plastic wrapping!
Sweets are individually wrapped in plastic and sold in a plastic bag.
I don’t know about you, but one of the most depressing, disturbing pieces of news I have heard all year was that a plastic shopping bag was discovered at the very bottom of the Marianas Trench (the deepest known point of our ocean). The discovery was made by a group of researchers studying images from deep-sea exploration projects, and the really bad thing about this is the fact that the footage was from 1998! Meaning that twenty-one years later it probably looks like Boxing day at my mum’s house down there.
Now the funny thing is, it was a Japanese research team that discovered the plastic. Japan is surrounded by ocean and relies on the ocean to feed its people. In fact, sixty-six percent of the fish consumed in Japan is domestically caught. Japan eats seven point five billion tonnes of fish a year, and of all the fish caught in the world, Japan consumes 10% of it by itself. So why is it, knowing that Japan is so reliant on the ocean is it still blatantly overusing plastic.
Now don’t get me wrong! I have never seen such an undying effort to recycle. The UK could learn a thing or two about recycling from Japan! But here’s the thing, not all plastic is recyclable. Plastic bottles that say PET on them, yeah sure they’re recyclable, but not plastic bags of any kind. After you finish your Starbucks and separate your plastic PET lid and paper cup and feel like you are doing your bit, the cup still has plastic in it that can’t be recycled. Also, mistakes happen.
When I moved into my new place the building manager made it abundantly clear (just like everywhere else in Japan) plastic in the plastic section, burnable trash in the burnable section, metal in the metal section. If there is contamination (a metal can in the plastic bag/plastic in the burnable trash bag/burnable trash in the metal bag) the bag is simply discarded as trash and not recycled. So if I have a giant bag full of plastic bottles but there is a banana peel in there, the whole bag is worthless and not recycled. It’s not really something you can hide either, considering the plastic bags look like this.
Maybe this is normal for the average person. Maybe Japan isn’t the only country that does this. But in the UK, plastic is a bit of a dirty word at the moment, and to be honest, probably always will be. I haven’t seen a plastic straw in about a year. I haven’t seen any in the supermarket and you have to ask for one in Nandos, and to be honest, the dirty looks you get for asking for one just aren’t worth it. Paper straws are all the rage at the moment and metal straws are going to be making their way into your cutlery draw at some point in the very near future.
Because plastic bags take about one thousand years to decompose (give or take), the UK understandably doesn’t want you to use them. So we put a price on them. 5p per bag (10p as of December apparently) and this has had an impact! More and more people have been bringing reusable bags, bags for life, and so on. Tote bags are a huge industry in Japan. So why isn’t Japan doing anything about this issue?
I think the problem starts with overpackaging. If I go shopping in a 7 Eleven and I buy a bottled coffee, the cashier will put it in a little plastic bag before giving it to me in a big plastic bag. I can protest and say I don’t need a bag at all but other people won’t. So here is my idea…
I get between two hundred and four hundred readers from Japan per month. If everyone that reads my blog could turn down one bag a month that’s between two hundred and four hundred bags per month off the street. Let’s start there and hopefully, it will lead to a much bigger change.