Plastic Atlas Japan Special Edition: A Closer Look at Japan's Plastic Waste Management


As the world’s third largest economy, Japan is Asia’s biggest packaging waste producer. Due to its comprehensive waste management system, Japan ranks high in the plastic management index, but plastic reduction and reuse remain a challenge. Places like Kamikatsu, working towards a zero waste economy, show the way.

Plastic Atlas Japan Special Edition article

It might not be surprising that the world’s third largest economy, Japan, is Asia’s biggest packaging waste producer. In the high-income country, nearly everything in the supermarket is wrapped in plastic packaging, and inside a typical box of biscuits, each biscuit is again wrapped in another plastic layer.

Close to half of the world’s plastic consumption comes from packaging. Japan now ranks second in plastic waste emissions in the globe, just behind the U.S. China produces about 4kg less plastic packaging waste per capita yearly than Japan, despite having 11 times the size of the population of its neighbor.

An average Japanese uses around as many as 450 plastic shopping bags each year – more than one each day – 11 times higher than Indonesia and 17 times higher than the UK. Japanese people also purchase up to 23.2 billion PET bottles nationwide annually – about 183 for each person.

What’s alarming is that such single-use plastic packaging waste accounts for over three quarters of Japan’s total plastic waste in 2019

A closer look into Japan’s plastic waste management

The silver linings lie in the fact that Japan also ranks the second highest plastic management index out of 25 countries in the world due to its comprehensive waste management system and a high extent of local cooperation.

Coupled these with residents’ high level of eco-consciousness and businesses’ collaboration, Japan managed to reach a collection rate of PET bottles of 93% - about half from local governments and another half from businesses. Out of the collected bottles, about 86% end up being recycled.

Although incineration is still the most common managing method for Japan’s plastic waste, and only about one-fifth of all disposed plastic waste in the nation has been recycled mechanically or materially, others are sent to providing electricity through thermal recycling. In recent years after China banned the import of plastic waste, corporates in Japan have been expanding its domestic recycling capabilities to cater to the increasing demand for local plastic recycling.

The government has also started pushing for a better plastic circulation through the newly established Plastic Resource Circulation Strategy. It also sets a goal to first turn all existing plastic packaging and goods to be either reusable or recyclable by 2025. By 2030, it aims to reuse or recycle 60% of all plastic containers and packaging, slash single-use plastic emissions by one-fourth, and start introducing the less polluting bioplastic. By 2035, officials want to reuse or recycle all plastic waste in Japan.

National goals aside, local government efforts and social initiatives against plastic waste have been emerging. Kyoto’s Kameoka City has become the first municipality to ban retail stores from providing plastic shopping bags, while Miyagi’s Kesennuma City, where the fisheries industry is thriving, has formulated an action plan with specific initiatives under its “Action Declaration for Marine Plastic Litter Countermeasures”.

NGOs and community initiatives like 530Week have been partnering with different companies to launch zero waste campaigns and offering purchase discounts to residents as incentives to boost environmental awareness. On the business front, over 350 companies from green startups to giant conglomerates like Shiseido have come together to form the Japan Clean Ocean Material Alliance, which is looking to use 100% recycling packaging in 2050 and encourage its members to increase their ESG investment.

Japan’s recycling system

In Japan, many recycled products are often dumped without being further recycled, despite its high PET bottle recycling rate. Delivery services like Loop that send perishable goods like food, shampoo and cosmetics in returnable package emerged, while companies also started making lighter PET bottles, further reducing the use of plastic and carbon emissions from both production and transportation.

There is, indeed, a poster child of zero waste community in Japan. Kamikatsu has reached over 80% of recycling rate. It took over 450 sessions with local associations for residents to understand and apply the waste segregation methods. In the port town of Minami-Sanriku, the local government awards residents each time they visit and contribute to the town’s waste collection center.

Western ideals of mass consumption, mass production and mass disposal engulfed Japan since the late 19th century. In the 1950s and 60s, some voices in Japan emerged in improving waste management system and reducing pollution from such waste. Relevant legislation and policies have been put into place, and the general awareness in the society has started to spread.

This shows a growing willingness to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle in Japanese communities, and coupled with the government’s more ambitious goals and corporations’ joint efforts, there is hope for Japan to develop a more advanced plastic waste management system and slash emissions.

Plastic Atlas Japan page1 graphic
Left: Japan’s PET bottle recycling rates are among the highest in the world. Per capita consumption is also high. Right: Japan has the second-highest plastic waste emissions per person in the world

Global efforts

Internationally, Japan has participated in the recent UN Environment Assembly resolution. In a meeting in early March this year, UN member countries passed a treaty named End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument, which kick started a high-level discussion on the a treaty that seeks to reduce plastic pollution.

The draft lists out suggestions including promoting sustainable product designs and materials, global partnership on marine litter actions, periodic assessment of policy effectiveness, among others. UN member countries are expected to confirm the details in the next two years.

This comes after the UN provided the latest estimation that rings the alarm bell again. It estimated that out of the 400 million tonnes of global plastic produced each year– a large majority from oil and natural gas – up to 23 million tonnes enter the aquatic ecosystems, and only 12% have been incinerated and less than 10% recycled.

The UN paints a bleak future: the problem doesn’t stop there, as flows of plastic waste into aquatic systems are expected to nearly triple from 11 million tonnes in 2016 to a whopping 29 million tonnes in 2040. If this goes on, by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal will take up 15% of allowed carbon emissions, and over 800 marine species will be affected.

How about Asia?

Currently, half of the world’s plastic is produced in Asia. Plastic factories already existed in the region as early as during the World War II: the global popularity of the use of polyethylene for making everyday products from drinking bottles to child seats has led to the rise of plastic factories in Hong Kong, China and Japan in the 1940s and 1950s.

Rapid industrialization and urbanization in the region, as well as the emerging positive image of convenience and hygiene in plastic use have also contributed to the exponential growth of plastic production in other Asian countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines in the past decade. Now, about half of all plastic waste in the oceans are from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

The pandemic that began in early 2020 also triggered a sudden surge of demand for single-use plastic including hand gloves, facemasks, and other types of PPE, leading to more production and more waste. The mountains of plastic waste have been worsened with the increase in exports from other countries to Southeast Asian nations.

This caused a set of problems within the region, including negative health impacts especially on vulnerable grassroots, polluted rivers and widening gender inequality, the plight of wastepickers, just to name a few, according to a report from German NGO Heinrich Böll Foundation (hbs) Plastic Atlas Asia.

The Atlas is a joint effort with NGO Break Free from Plastic and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), and offers regional data, explanation of more negative impacts, and an in-depth look into the potential solutions to Asia’s plastic pollution problem. The new Japan Special Edition, launched today, has provided details about Japan’s most updated waste management trend, history and the potential solutions for one of Asia’s richest nations.

Edited by Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage (IGES), Miwa Tatsuno (IGES), Joanna Wong (hbs)