Don't Mess With Japan

Posted by: Kenji Hall on March 25, 2008

Carry your own chopsticks. Carry your groceries in cotton eco-bags. Use public transportation. Ride a bicycle. Recycle.

They can’t be crammed into a catchy slogan, like the one Texas had for fighting litter on the highways (“Don’t Mess With Texas!”). But those are the things Japan will ask consumers to do under its latest plan to reduce trash by more than half in 15 years. The clock for this new policy, approved today by the Cabinet and slated to go into effect next month, has already started ticking: fiscal year 2000 will be the baseline.

To get an idea of what this means, consider how much trash the Japanese threw out in fiscal 2000: 63 million tons. (The figure includes both households and businesses.) By my rough calculation, that’s 1.36 kilograms (3 lbs) of garbage per day for every soul living on the archipelago.

The government wants to cut back to 40% of the total, or 25.3 million tons. That comes to about .54 kg (1.2 lbs) per person per day. By comparison, Americans throw away about 209 million tons of trash, or 1.9 kg (4.2 lbs) per person each day.

Reducing garbage sounds straightforward. There’s probably lots of recyclable stuff that ends up getting chucked. The government wants to encourage people to carry their groceries home in washable cotton bags instead of taking plastic bags at the supermarket, and to use washable chopsticks instead of the giveaways that come with bento lunch boxes (why not do something about all those plastic lunch boxes, too?). And what about those beautifully wrapped items you can see people carrying home from the downtown Tokyo department stores? Those will have to go, too. My own local grocery story sells vegetables individually wrapped in plastic bags or cellophane, not by the kilogram (or pound). Just say no to the excessive wrapping, right? Sort of.

Japan has done a good job of spreading awareness. Tokyo has a model program for a weekly curbside pickup of recyclable plastic and glass bottles and cans. Convenience stores take recyclable PET bottles, and supermarkets collect PET bottles, milk cartons and Styrofoam trays. So do some other big cities in Japan. Laws mandate that everything from TVs and computers to washing machines and even cars get recycled. Public-service TV ads repeat the virtues of the three Rs (Reuse, Reduce, Recycle), and the buzz word on Sunday radio broadcasts is about sustainable living (LOHAS, or Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability).

But the reality is this: Refuse waste only accounts for a tenth of all the garbage produced. The rest is industrial waste. Japan’s problem will be figuring out how to get businesses to pitch in. That’s where this effort will count the most.

Reader Comments

Ryan

March 27, 2008 6:35 AM

Everybody who has been to Japan told me that Japan is unbelievably clean. They don't know how much trash the Japanese throw away to China and other countries. They are throwing away risk to the rest of world actually. If they keep throwing trash to other countries, this policy means nothing to the world.

Wes

March 27, 2008 7:58 AM

Ryan

That goes for other countries as well. (US, Canada, UK....) I disagree however that you say this policy doesn't do anything for the world. This policy does exactly something. It does reduce the overall waste thrown out whether it is in a Japanese landfill or a landfill in another country. Waste is borderless. It is a human problem and all people of all countries have to do something about it. The first step is reducing it.

tisha

March 27, 2008 12:49 PM

hi.

Ali

March 31, 2008 12:46 PM

I agree with MR Ryan...Just wanted to add that instead of improving recyling facilities only in Western Countries, measure should me taken to transfer the awareness and technology to third world countries so the planet must be protected on the whole

Downs

March 31, 2008 5:14 PM


Japan is also a big source of carbon dioxide emissions per capita. But Japan is not even amongst top 30 in the ranking. The following is the rankings of countries based upon emission per capita. Info is from United Nations Millennium Development Goals Indicators between 2001 and 2004. See for yourself. Japan is only ranked 34. Worth mentioning, China and India are respectively ranked 91 and 133.

Rank Country 2001 2002 2003 2004

1 Qatar 66.3 67.4 63.1 69.2
2 Kuwait 28.8 27.1 31.1 38.0
10 USA 20.1 20.0 19.8 20.4
11 Canada 16.0 17.1 17.9 20.0
13 Australia 19.1 18.2 18.0 16.3
34 Japan 9.4 9.5 9.5 9.84
36 Denmark 9.0 8.9 10.1 9.80
37 UK 9.6 9.3 9.4 9.79
38 Germany 10.0 9.7 9.8 9.79
91 China 2.3 2.7 3.2 3.84
133 India 1.1 1.2 1.19 1.20

Downs

March 31, 2008 5:16 PM

Japan is also a big source of carbon dioxide emissions per capita. But Japan is not even amongst top 30 in the ranking. The following is the rankings of countries based upon emission per capita. Info is from United Nations Millennium Development Goals Indicators between 2001 and 2004. See for yourself. Japan is only ranked 34. Worth mentioning, China and India are respectively ranked 91 and 133.

Rank Country 2001 2002 2003 2004

1 Qatar 66.3 67.4 63.1 69.2
2 Kuwait 28.8 27.1 31.1 38.0
10 USA 20.1 20.0 19.8 20.4
11 Canada 16.0 17.1 17.9 20.0
13 Australia 19.1 18.2 18.0 16.3
34 Japan 9.4 9.5 9.5 9.84
36 Denmark 9.0 8.9 10.1 9.80
37 UK 9.6 9.3 9.4 9.79
38 Germany 10.0 9.7 9.8 9.79
91 China 2.3 2.7 3.2 3.84
133 India 1.1 1.2 1.19 1.20

Big J

March 31, 2008 8:51 PM

Kenji,
Just one question: are the numbers you're dealing with for the whole of Japan (industrial, business, personal, etc), or only for the household sector?
Also, much of the bento boxes available at convenience stores are made with a starch based material, not plastic.
I live in Japan, too, and know how INSANE the packaging is. I agree, for as much as we hear about recycling, using eco-shopping bags, LOHAS, etc. people still love their 5 dollar apples wrapped in (again the starch based material) excess material. One more point, just because a material is not petrol-based or is made of recycled material DOESN'T make it eco-friendly. Excess is waste. NO wrapping for my apples please, or my crackers, chocolate cookies, wet napkins....

Prasanna

April 17, 2008 6:40 AM

I have been to a couple of Japanese cities, and they're clean. But not the sort of clean to blow your mind away.

Part of it is, of course the weather - few ppl realise tropical countries are inherently more dusty.

What I do like about Japan is the public transportation and the way its planned - I wisht there were more countries that followed the model and gave us good transportation.

happiestdream

April 30, 2008 1:21 PM

recycling needs to use energy too. reducing is the priority for eco-conciousness.

That's why we say reduce first, and then reuse, and last, recycling.

kenna

May 1, 2008 5:24 PM

i lov u

Marc

September 29, 2008 12:36 PM

I just walked around the block and got a nice planting bin and some electrical wire that I use plenty of. I generally have about 1 bag of trash (yah in a plastic grocery bag, sometimes you just get them before you can show them your bag, then they throw em out or recycle if you give it back, and its nice to put nasty trash in them). My recycle bins are too small and trash can too big, and I compost about half of what would be thrown out. But yes, industrial and commercial waste is the biggest problem and standards do need to be set, New york is a fine example of waste reclamation but most cities don't like to invest in the infrastructure because it costs extra to put it into place. We need to give incentives or this will not change because it's cheaper in the short run, it only takes a couple of years to recover costs then its cheaper so get it together gov/business!

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies.

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