Zero Waste Travelling through Japan – Is it Possible?

I have just come back from 3 weeks travelling through Japan and I am absolutely in love with this country. 🙂 The Japanese are incredibly polite and helpful, and it is so easy to get around on public transport. Language has not been an issue at all, there is always a way of communicating in a different way. These holidays have gone way beyond my expectations – and I have had very high ones. 🙂

I have always been interested in the Japanese way of living and I love Japanese food – udon, ramen, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, sushi, mochi, … You name it, I have never had any Japanese food I did not like, so Japan was very high up on my travel list and 2019 was finally the year to go and explore.

What I was worried about was the packaging culture though (Japanese people love beautiful wrappings and packaging) and I was not disappointed. 😦

20190412_100027Convenience is a big topic in Japan, there is a convenience store (konbini = コンビニ) at literally every corner, even in rural areas. These convenience stores sell all kinds of food like pot noodles, alcohol, snacks, even freshly made cold and hot food, but everything comes in plastic packaging. You can also buy pre-packaged bento boxes at supermarkets, department stores and train stations and again everything is wrapped in plastic, and often not just once but double- and triple wrapped and then put in a plastic carry bag.

20190405_082529Vending machines are literally everywhere, on every corner, in little laneways, in hotels, … I find this fascinating. You will never go thirsty for sure, and the temptation is there as the choices are pretty extensive and cheap (and different to what you might be used to, think cherry blossom coke). But do you really need a sugar sweetened drink or pre-packaged water in a single-use plastic bottle? Japanese tap water tastes good and is absolutely fine to drink, so you just need to bring you refillable water bottle and refill whenever you need to. There are not many water bubblers, so you will have to revert to filling up in your hotel or on the go in restrooms (which are super clean). When eating in a restaurant you usually get a cup of water and unlimited green tea for free, so why pay for it? 20190409_185113I have also seen vending machines for hot food and ramen noddles (this was on an overnight ferry) and I am sure there are plenty of other things you can get from vending machines. Great when this is your only option, but most times you will be able to find a water tap close by.

20190401_185855I rarely had any fresh fruit while travelling through Japan as everything apart from massive Fuji apples and the odd orange, was usually wrapped (I even found 2 bananas in a plastic bag with a ribbon or just look at these carrots) …

So what can you do? The zero waste mantra is: Be prepared. If that fails, then:

1. Avoid convini and coffee shop chains like Starbucks

2. Eat in rather than get take-away

3. Politely decline a plastic carry bag with a smile on your face (try fukuro wa irimasen)

4. Be patient and friendly and don’t despair if you end up with extra packaging. You know you tried. 🙂

I b20190408_202524rought my reusable water bottles and cup with me and I bought beautiful hand made wooden chopsticks on my first day in Tokyo in Asakusa from a little specialist shop (but yes, they came in a little plastic wrap). I also found matcha in a little tin, plastic free. When visiting a sake brewery at Mt Fuji, they gave me a lovely sake cup which I have been using throughout this trip for the occasional night cap. I brought a re-usable cup, but as I did not get take-away (I don’t drink coffee), did not end up using it, so could have left it at home.

20190331_202112Sometimes though you can’t eat in as all restaurants around you might be closed (try Lake Kawaguchiko on a Monday night …), so your only option might be a convini. Onigiri are yum and filling, so at least look for one wrapped in a single plastic layer and opt for chocolate that comes in cardboard and aluminium foil (Meiji has a couple of options here).

20190406_115948Eating in though is the way to go. Especially as a solo traveller, you usually get seated at the bar right in the middle of the action and are able to watch the chef do his (or her) magic. Service is fast and good food can be found for little money often with free bottomless tea. The experience is just beautiful.

I always declined plastic bags when buying something. Often you get a weird look and sometimes refusal, but a smile always saved the situation and mostly I got away without a plastic bag. And in the cases where I did not, well, that’s life. It is not worth fretting about it, enjoy your holidays, at least you tried. 🙂

I am pretty hard core at home when it comes to buying package-free and living low waste, but I knew that there was no point of being that focused while in Japan. It is such a different culture and I was keen to enjoy every single minute of my holiday and not hang myself up on little things. The Japanese people are incredibly polite and patient with foreigners and are super welcoming, so it is so much better to show respect and smile and take things as they are. I would have loved to delve a bit deeper into the Japanese day to day and have a conversation about what the Japanese people think about the zero waste movement, but the opportunity did not really present itself. Hopefully next time, because this was definitely not my last trip to this beautiful country.

So, what actually happens to Japan’s waste?

Japan is an island and as such their land space is limited – Japan is one of the more densely populated countries on this planet and their population is mostly urban. The population density in Japan is 348 per Km2, in comparison in Australia it is a mere 3 per Km2 and in Germany 237 per Km2*.

Japan is burning a lot of their non-recyclable waste (apparently about 70% of their waste runs under the waste to energy model), but they are also said to be masters of recycling. Unfortunately I did not have a chance to really look into individual household waste and how this is managed at Japanese homes, but apparently households separate waste into at least 8 categories like burnable waste, plastic packaging, plastic bottles, glass, paper, non-burnable waste, … (#) which are then put out on specific days, often in transparent bags and with the owner’s name on it. Every region and council is different, but generally the system is based on the Container and Packaging Recycling Law in place in its current version since 2000. The Japanese are strict, if the waste is not sorted correctly there will be naming and shaming.

In the places I stayed though, there were usually only 2 types of bins for burnable and non-burnable waste and maybe a third one for plastic bottles. I believe this is to not confuse foreigners and that (most) places would separate further in the background before putting out their waste. Hopefully!

Japan has been investing a lot in new and innovative recycling processes and systems and apparently PET recovery is a success story with more and more big brand names using recycled materials and being able to convert used bottles into almost the same quality plastic as before.

We all know though that recycling is not the solution, but that we should all avoid to produce garbage in the first place. So what is Japan doing in this area? More and more supermarkets are coming on board and have started charging a small fee for plastic bags to encourage the use of reusable bags. More and more Japanese people carry their own chopsticks (hashi = 箸), and there is a zero waste movement. But travelling through the country as someone who doesn’t really speak the language and is just observing, excessive packaging is everywhere and the non-packaged options are few and far between. Still, I think you can travel pretty much zero waste if you follow my recommendations from above. Safe travels! 🙂20190329_195826


More information:
This article gives a good step by step introduction on how to handle your waste when living in Japan:

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