Plastic Is No Longer Fantastic–Market Potential for Alternatives in Japan

In a famous scene from the Oscar-winning 1967 movie The Graduate, a savvy businessman pulls Dustin Hoffman’s naïve and rudderless character Benjamin aside and utters a single word of advice: “Plastics.”

He was right. Plastics were indeed the future, but as it turns out not a pretty one. Whispering that word now might be more fitting for a horror film, in fact. Whales and other sea creatures are washing up on beaches with masses of plastic in their stomachs. Microscopic bits of plastic waste are showing up inside plankton and tiny crustaceans down to the deepest depths—the Mariana Trench—and polluting the food chain. Researchers from South Korea and Greenpeace East Asia recently found microplastics in 90 percent of the table salt brands they sampled worldwide.

Single-use plastic got out of control

The main culprits here are what are known as single-use plastics or disposable plastics, which refer to any product made of plastic that is typically discarded after one use. That vast lineup includes plastic bags, coffee stirrers, plastic utensils, straws, PET bottles and most food packaging.

All the single-use plastic used in Japan to bag goods, hold beverages, cushion fruits and separate sweets and other treats (to make sure everyone gets an individually wrapped piece of whatever) form a mountain of waste far larger than Mount Fuji every year. According to sources such as the Asahi Shimbun and the UN, Japan trails only the United States in its consumption of single-use plastics. Online metrics site Statista says Japan also produces more plastic per capita—106 kilos—than China and the rest of Asia combined, at just 94 kilos.

Nations and regions are banning single-use plastic

The European Union announced that it would ban single-use plastics by 2021. Late in 2018 New Zealand banned single-use plastic bags, and the state of New York just said that it is banning them as well, which will cut the world’s total by 23 billion a year.

Japan’s obsession with single-use plastic

Meanwhile, a June 2018 UN report said up to five trillion grocery bags are used globally each year. That’s about ten million per minute. Here in Japan you have to be swift and proactive at any shop to avoid getting your purchases summarily shoved into one or more plastic bags. Not surprisingly, the average Japanese consumer takes away up to 400 plastic checkout bags annually.

In the land where wrapping seems to have as many layers as a Russian nesting doll, what is the Japanese government doing to persuade people to cool their passion for plastic?

Well, the nation has declared a target: a 25 percent cut in the 9.4 million tonnes of plastic waste it produces each year by 2030, and has also decided to make it mandatory for retail shops to charge for plastic shopping bags to curb their use. However, in 2018 both Japan and the United States declined to sign the G7 Pact to reduce use of single-use plastics and prevent plastic pollution. Not too encouraging.

Japanese culture drives plastic consumption

There are many reasons that things are still so wrapped up in Japan, and why that isn’t likely to change quickly. Sharing is one pivotal social aspect. Bring back an omiyage (gift bought during a trip) to your colleagues, friends or family, and it had better be beautifully packaged and full of individual portions so that everyone can have a piece. (Did you bring enough for everyone?) All those throwaway wrappers add up; so do the ones holding tiny individual portions of edibles that are especially ubiquitous at convenience stores.

The Japanese are also a fastidious lot, so the assurance that what they’re eating has not been touched by multiple hands rates highly. Protecting the perfection of what’s offered is essential as well: Expensive fruits get the coddled star treatment, for example, as bruises and other flaws are not forgiven.

There are eco-conscious consumers in Japan, of course. Well over a decade ago, a movement known as LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) leapt the pond from the U.S. and Europe and drove a lot of profitable business to marketers of natural foods and organic personal care products in Japan. Healthy activities such as yoga also got a firm boost. When LOHAS started to show up at beauty salons and real estate offices, though, it lost some punch and credibility. The desire that powered the movement still exists, though, and represents a lot of potential business in consumer goods, energy, food, medication, real estate, publishing and advertising. (More on LOHAS in an upcoming post.)

Alternatives to single-use plastic

Recycling is one option, but research shows that only around a tenth of the plastic we produce is ever recycled. And even when we do, the outcome may be unexpectedly negative. Take PET bottles, which are found in every vending machine and convenience store in Japan. They’re recyclable, and those that are processed often enjoy a second existence as warm and comfy pieces of synthetic polar fleece. Unfortunately, these fleecy garments shed masses of plastic microfibers every time you launder them—washed out and destined for the ocean or other bodies of water.

With those things in mind, it may be better to subtly swap out petroleum-based plastics for more sustainable materials. So let’s talk about hemp, which is a replacement source for plastic with high potential (sorry, couldn’t resist). Everything plastic can be made from hemp, including containers such as bottles and other packaging, electronics, toys and even furniture. Hemp takes just three months from seed to harvestable plant, too, and is completely biodegradable and endlessly recyclable. It’s also nontoxic, and is free from the harmful endocrine disruptors petroleum-based plastics contain. It releases no toxins into the air during production, either.

Hemp & flour as potential solutions

Known as taima in Japan, hemp has been cultivated here for centuries, and even has a place in Shinto worship. It’s still grown here, but restrictions placed during the U.S. Occupation and the Vietnam War years made it much harder to cultivate.

You might be surprised to learn that one of hemp’s top proponents is the First Lady of Japan, Akie Abe. She even extolled the virtues of hemp onstage at something called the Kyoto Hemp Forum in 2016, and it wasn’t the first time she’d spoken about it.

The emphasis for products is on low-THC strains that aren’t worth smoking in any form. Producers of hemp plastics should certainly investigate this market.

Meanwhile in India, a company called Bakeys is making edible eating utensils from millet flour rice and wheat flour in three flavours—savoury, sweet and plain—to cut down on plastic waste.  The company is now focusing on selling their production machines, which cost around 1.4 million rupees (a little over two million yen) apiece, and plans to take on crockery next. How about chopsticks while you’re at it?

Companies that phase out plastic in Japan

The private sector, ever conscious of image, is doing its part in Japan. Shopping giant Aeon offers biomass plastic bags at five yen each, and the firm estimates the policy saved 270 million plastic bags in 2017 alone. Another example is the restaurant chain Skylark, which announced it will eliminate plastic straws from all of its Gusto restaurants—that’s six million straws per year—by the time of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Customers requesting straws will get biodegradable ones made from corn. The Hyatt Regency Tokyo announced that it is replacing all plastic straws and cocktail picks with recyclable materials such as paper and bamboo. Guests use about 121,000 plastic straws and 8,000 cocktail picks annually.

These and many other companies and organizations are involved in the Plastics Smart campaign run by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment as part of the PACE Japan hub activities, seeking to cut or drop their consumption of single-use plastics. That illustrious group includes Starbucks, Unilever, Ajinomoto, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, IKEA, Adidas and Uniqlo, among many others.

According to an October 2018 BBC report, 250 large enterprise companies such as Coca Cola, H&M, and L’Oreal have pledged to eradicate plastic waste by 2025, and that 100 percent of their plastic packaging would be reused, recycled or composted by then.

The demand for green plastic substitutes will be high

All those firms are going to need substitutes, and you’d best believe that Japan will be a prime consumer. To any green-product marketer, the vacuum created by the disappearance of single-use plastic items here should be a challenge to relish. Makers of eco-friendly products such as reusable silicone lids for bowls and titanium drinking straws should also look on Japan as a promising market. Japan and the rest of the world will need plenty of help avoiding a planet poisoned by plastic.

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