Retailers believe that if goods are not wrapped in plastic, it is difficult to guarantee food safety standards in the supply chain, according to a spokesman for Lawson, a nationwide chain of convenience stores.
But Japan's deep dependence on plastic does not end up packing any items.
While Japan generates less general waste per person than most developed countries, it produces more plastic waste per person than anywhere in the world, except the United States, according to a 2018 UN report.
Japan has made an effort to cut down on plastic waste since it passed a law in 1
991 that left the responsibility for recycling packaging at companies.
But while other countries have been waging a war against disposable plastic for years, Japan has been slow in the game.
However, that may be about to change. This month, the Japanese government introduced a mandatory fee of between 3 and 5 yen (3 to 5 cents) for each plastic bag, corresponding to a withdrawal already made in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Is this a sign Japan is finally ready to tackle its love affair with plastic?
The Power of Plastics
Japan's obsession with plastics dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, according to Roy Larke, professor at Waikato University and editor of the market intelligence website JapanConsuming. At the time, Japan was seen as the world's factory, but as the country's economy picked up, the country sought to transform its image from a low – cost manufacturer to a first – class retailer.
Manufacturers paid more attention to packaging to appeal to consumers looking for quality, and the standards were reinforced by retailers who are still convinced that buyers prefer comprehensive packaging.
"The big retailers see themselves as quality people for the customer, so they will reject unnecessary packaging that is too simple," says Larke.
The preference for packaging extends to food – for hygiene as well as appearance.
In 1993, anthropologist Joy Hendry argued in his book "Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation in Japan and Other Societies" that a preference for wrapping food in plastic ic is an inherent part of Japanese customer service culture, or omotenashi.
Cheaper goods may seem more exclusive when they are wrapped in plastic, Hendry writes. It gives the impression that a store provides a better and more considerate service.
"Reduce, reuse, recycle?"
Japan may consume a lot of plastic, but it also promotes recycling as a noble social enterprise, according to Jeongsoo Yu, an environmental expert. and vice dean at Tohoku University.
There is even a national mantra for it: Reduce, reuse, recycle.
There are specific days for disposing of food waste, plastic, glass bottles and aluminum cans. Many local government websites provide detailed instructions on how to recycle items. For example, the city of Chiba near Tokyo flags designated places for people to dispose of the covers used to seal polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. It also provides telephone lines for people who want to throw out syringes and computers.
But while Japan's approach to waste sorting seems sophisticated, the country's recycling system is in fact overwhelmed by the large volume of plastic.  Workers sort disposable plastic waste at a carrier at the Ichikawa Kankyo Engineering Recycling Center. The Tokyo City Office in Katsushika brings 10 tons of plastic recyclable resources to the recycling plant daily. "data-src-mini =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200723230845-03-japan-plastic-waste-restricted-small-169.jpg "data-src-xsmall =" // cdn .cnn.com / cnnnext / dam / assets / 200723230845-03-japan-plastic-waste-restricted-medium-plus-169.jpg "data-src-small =" http://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/ dam / assets / 200723230845-03-japan-plastic-waste-restricted-large-169.jpg "data-src-medium =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200723230845-03-japan-plastic -waste-restricted-exlarge-169.jpg "data-src-large =" // cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200723230845-03-japan-plastic-waste-restricted-super-169.jpg " data-src-full16x9 = "// cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200723230845-03-japan-plastic-waste-restricted-full-169.jpg" data-src-mini1x1 = "// cdn. cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200723230845-03-japan-plastic-waste-restricted-small-11.jpg "data-demand-load =" not-loaded "data-eq-pts =" mini: 0, xsmall: 221, small: 308, medium: 461, large: 781 "src =" data: image / gif; base64, R0lGODlhEAAJAJEAAAAAAP /////// wAAACH5BAEAAAIALAAAAAAQAAKAAAIKlI + py + 0Po5 yUFQA7 "/>
Japan generates approximately 9 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, second only to the United States, which produced 35 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2017 and recycled less than 10%.
Japan's official plastic recycling rate is 84%, according to the Plastic Waste Management Institute, a group funded by manufacturers including polyvinyl chloride manufacturer Shin-Etsu Chemical, Japan's largest chemical company.
It sounds loud – and it is – but it is an important reservation for the figure, says Chisato Jono, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace in Japan.
When people sort the plastic waste and throw it away, they assume that it has been turned into a new plastic product, says Jono.
However, much of the plastic that is put in bins is not scaled up to a new product as it is too low quality and there is too much of it. Some go to the landfill, but the majority – 56% – are burned to produce energy, according to a 2018 report from the Plastic Waste Management Institute. The process, known as "thermal recycling", generates electricity, but it also produces carbon dioxide emissions that are bad for the environment, Jono explains.
A small part of Japan's total plastic waste is sent abroad for treatment. In 2018 Japan was the world's largest exporter of plastic waste and scrap, sending over one million tonnes abroad, compared to almost 900,000 tonnes sent by the USA.
However, this creates another problem. Jono says that when Japan's plastic waste passes into another territory, it is impossible to know how other nations will manage it. "We do not know if (the plastic) is recycled properly in ways that do not affect people's health in the process," she says.
But with China banning the import of plastic waste in August 2017, plastic waste was piling up in Japan, and many storage facilities are reaching saturation levels, according to Yu.
For example, in 2017, Japan exported around 75,000 tonnes of plastic waste to China. That number dropped to 45,971 tonnes in 2018, following the Beijing ban, while Japan diverted exports of plastic waste to Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand, according to a spokesman for the Plastic Waste Management Institute.
These countries are moving to reduce imports of plastic waste, but do not have a complete ban – yet.
Yu, the environmental expert, says that people in Japan usually think they have done their part when washing their plastic containers and clearing rubbish. But in reality, the plastic waste problem will continue to grow unless people change their behavior by, for example, refusing to buy products packaged in plastic.
"This will encourage retailers to rethink packaging," says Yu.
In terms of innovation
At the local level, some places in Japan have implemented measures to reduce the use of plastics.
The inhabitants of Kamikatsu in southern Japan, a city with a population of 1,490, have pursued a "zero-waste" policy since 2003. The scheme aims to prioritize waste prevention by teaching consumers to invest in reusable household items.
Kamikatsu is already close to reaching its goal. The city recycled around 80.7% of the 301 tonnes of household waste it produced in 2019, according to the municipal council, which is much higher than the national average of 20%, according to data from the OECD.
Waste – including plastic, paper, food scraps and glass – is divided into 45 categories, which can be collected, exchanged or recycled.
Residents are also encouraged to avoid disposable products through a scheme that rewards consumers with points when they refuse disposable plastic items such as plastic bags, for example, says Midori Suga, a spokeswoman for the Kamikatsu Council. These points can then be tapped and used to buy other reusable items, she says.
Any remaining non-recyclable waste – such as tissue paper – is temporarily incinerated.
Larger cities are also trying to cut waste. In 2018, the city of Kameoka in Kyoto prefecture became the first Japanese city to announce plans to ban disposable plastic with a view to ending its use by 2030, according to a spokesman for the city council. From next January, retailers in the city will be banned from offering customers plastic bags – whether they are free or not.
While the nationwide fee rule for plastic bags marks a major move to curb Japan's dependence on plastic, Larke warned that the charge could be too low to deter repeat offenders.
"If someone just has a little too much to take with them, especially in a convenience store, they can buy a bag. But if the fee was 10 yen (9 cents) or higher, that would be a different story," he says. .
However, Larke added that consumers in Japan were really concerned about recycling, and that suppliers could reverse customer expectations for plastic packaging if they built it into marketing.
Yu says that there is now a need more than ever to move from being a "caste society to an environmentally friendly society." Following trends seen over large parts of the developing world, more Japanese are choosing to use reusable bottles and bags.
But individuals must realize how much their attitudes can change business models, says Jono.
"Some businesses in Japan are afraid that customers will complain if they do not give them items in plastic bags, but if customers say they do not need them, businesses will also be more likely to change," says Jono.
Attitudes change slowly. In 2018, Japan caused a stir by joining the United States by refusing to sign the G7 Pact to reduce the use of disposable plastics and prevent plastic pollution.
At the time, Japanese Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa claimed that Japan shared the same enthusiasm for reducing plastic waste that the G7 Pact aimed at, but decided not to participate because it could affect daily life and industry.
However, Japan committed itself the following year to reducing disposable plastic waste by 25% by 2030 – and reusing or recycling 60% of all plastic packaging and containers by the same year.
Businesses also do their part.
For example, in 2019, 7-Eleven Holdings announced it replaced the plastic packaging around their rice bowls with a plant-based alternative. This is important because the convenience store produces approximately 2.2 billion rice coals a year, and estimates that it can save 260 tonnes of plastic and reduce CO2 emissions by 403 tonnes a year.
Jono claims that the solution is not to make alternative biodegradable plastic, but to think of ways to eliminate the use of plastic completely. She cites examples of supermarkets selling rice and beans in dispensers, allowing people to bring their own containers and decide how much they want to buy. She also suggests looking back at what Japan did best in the past.
"Thirty years ago, Japan did not use disposable plastic. People used to pack things in newspapers or transport food in" furoshiki "(a special cloth) that could be used over and over again," says Jono.
"My family used to bring a frying pan to the tofu store to transport the tofu home. We have to look back on that."