Is Japan Eco-friendly or Eco-hostile?



The use of plastic globally has spindled out of control, however, Japan specifically has failed to take measures to prevent this global emergency. Japan exported 72% of its plastic to China until 2017, when China announced they will no longer accept imports of waste plastic (Asahi Shimbun). Although countries in Europe reacted to this by enforcing new laws banning certain plastic products such as straws, Japan has not placed similar measures. The country’s news outlets attempted to reassure the citizens of their “environmentally-friendly” system by glorifying the amount of plastic that is recycled in the country. However, 2014 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, showed that the municipal recycling rate for Japan was only 21 percent. Furthermore, recycling is only a short-term solution: Tohoku University professor Yu states that “the banning of plastic packaging and paraphernalia may be the only solution in the long run.”

PET bottles are put into a compressor at the Minato Resource Recycle Center in Tokyo.

The resistance to change stems from the financial cost of halting the use of plastic: “Recycling plastic costs much more than making plastic from scratch and requires lots of energy, water, and manpower” (Takeda). For example, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, it costs less than ¥1 to produce a plastic straw but around ¥13 for a paper straw. Therefore, businesses are reluctant to recycle or switch to biodegradable, environmentally-friendly forms of plastic. However, Japan has recently put in efforts to limit the use of plastic through financial incentive: many grocery stores now charge approximately ¥3-5 per plastic bag. Additionally, the government has been calling for a reduction in the use of plastic straws but have not placed proper measures to ensure this. Therefore, single-use plastics are still the main form of waste in the country (Kyodo).

The Showa Denko gasification plant in Ogimachi, Kanagawa Prefecture.

A few companies have attempted to reduce plastics or find ways to take advantage of its presence. At Showa Denko, plastic is chemically recycled through a heat gasification process. This method breaks down the materials into its constituent parts through patterns of heating and cooling. This breaks down the molecular chain of carbon polymers into the elementary gases of carbon and hydrogen. The gas then undergoes several cleaning stages, removing hydrogen chloride and sulfur while converting the carbon monoxide into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The hydrogen is converted into ammonia, used in everything from acrylic fiber to medication, while the carbon dioxide goes to a carbon dioxide plant that produces the fizz in carbonated drinks (Hornyak). Utilizing methods like gasification, Japan has attempted to find beneficial uses of waste plastic.

Plastic is very damaging to the environment. Its chemical structure makes it resistant to natural processes of biodegradation and as a result, there is high plastic pollution in land, waterways, and oceans. This has many consequences including the negative effect on marine life: many animals die from mistakenly ingesting plastic, leading to significant effects in the ecosystem. We as individuals can contribute to reducing the amount of plastic in many ways: volunteering for beach clean-ups, using eco-friendly reusable bags to stores, recycling, and consciously reducing the use of plastic. In my Marine Studies class, we organized a beach clean up in efforts to help this problem. We partnered with the Japanese Environmental Action Network that hosts many beach cleanups in various beaches around Japan. Although plastic seems convenient and affordable, the long-term effects can be detrimental to the earth and for our species.

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  1. April 28, 2019 by Jenny.Zhao

    Hello! This was a very thorough presentation and I liked your intro video that showed the extent of unnecessary plastic used. Just to add to your list of ways to help the environment, our family reuses any plastic bags we get from stores as trash bags. This way, we have bags that we can take our groceries back and we don’t need to buy any trash bags.

  2. May 08, 2019 by Michael Bell

    Great presentation Yufa! I really like your video highlighting the overuse of plastic. I did a little digging and you are right, not much of it is recylced, and now lots is heading to Malaysia, and lots will end up in the ocean.

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