Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a proliferation of plastic waste in my home. During the pandemic, my husband and I came to rely on takeout and a cornucopia of tasty, time-saving frozen treats available online – vacuum-packed pizzas, plastic-wrapped burritos, and plastic bags full of potato galettes. One day, I realised that plastics made up around two-thirds of our waste. Alarmed by reports that ocean plastic pollution will quadruple by 2050, I worried that we were headed down the slippery slope of convenience that is contributing to the plastic crisis. To find out how much changing my daily lifestyle habits could reduce waste, I set myself the challenge of cutting out single-use plastic over the course of a week.
The plastics challenge
Even before Japan began charging for plastic bags at retail stores, I’d been choosing reusable bags for shopping. Carrying a water bottle and downloading the MyMizu app, which shows a map of refilling stations around central Tokyo, helped me avoid buying water in PET bottles.
To significantly reduce my plastic waste, I focused on limiting packaging, first by cutting back on lunchtime takeaway, which frequently comes in plastic containers, and refraining from shopping online.
Still, excessive packaging is the norm in Tokyo. Shop clerks commonly wrap glass jars in bubble wrap or place loose vegetables in plastic bags automatically at checkout.
Japan’s obsession with packaging has cultural roots related to concepts of “presentation and respect, especially when giving gifts,” says Azby Brown, author of Just Enough: Lessons from Japan for Sustainable Living, Architecture, and Design.
The tradition of wrapping objects conveys “the regard you have for the other person.” In the modern retail context, packaging indicates good customer service: “Customers expect it,” Brown says. “People want to know that the food is protected, not bruised or soiled. The notion of cleanliness is very important here.”
Despite my virtuous intentions, I met with setbacks early on, after a beer importer offered to send me some bottles to try (as a food and drinks writer, I often receive such samples). The box arrived filled with plastic packing pillows, each bottle enveloped in a double layer of bubble wrap.
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The week of my challenge also coincided with the worst heat wave in Japan since 1875 – five hellish days of temperatures exceeding 35C (95F), with soul-crushing levels of humidity. After two days of cooking in my sweltering kitchen, I caved. Dreading the extra hassle of washing and chopping vegetables every night, I began augmenting dinners with prepared foods from various takeaway shops in my neighbourhood.
Although karaage fried chicken was sold in waxed paper bags and takoyaki squid dumplings came in boat-shaped bamboo trays, vegetable dishes like pressed tofu salad and coleslaw came in individual plastic clamshell packages. Leak-prone items like kimchi, a Korean side dish of preserved vegetables, were wrapped in extra plastic, but even fresh bread and pastries from my local bakery were encased in plastic bags.
“We try to minimise the use of plastics, but consumer demand is high in this humid environment,” says chef and sustainability advocate Shinobu Namae, who runs Bricolage Bakery in central Tokyo’s Roppongi district. “Weighing food quality versus the problem of plastics is always an issue, but we try to find a balance.”
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