Plastic in Japan: collected, not recycled

Plastic is everywhere in Japan and over-the-top wrapping is not uncommon. So much so there’s even an Instagram account dedicated to these abuses: Plastic Obsessed Japan.

Where would be the problem if recycling was over-the-top too. Case is, it is not.

Plastic reduction, one of the main objectives of the recent G7 summit

After having refused to sign the G7 declaration on plastic reduction in 2018 (with the US), the Japanese government announced its action plan on the subject prior to the main G7 reunion.

This action plan mostly targets illegal dumping but doesn’t set any objectives or penalties.

When China and South-East China countries have enough

China decision to refuse any more plastic waste importations sent ripples all around the world. Especially since other neighbouring countries decided to follow suite. Japan was especially hit as it doesn’t have the capability to deal with the plastic waste it creates.

Surprising, isn’t it?

Especially while at the same time, Japan was proudly touting it recycles 80% of the plastic waste it creates. What is this dissonance?

Fire at the rescue

The main reason comes from how “recycling” is defined. Three main methods are considered:

  • Material recycling: melting or reuse in new objects
  • Chemical recycling: using chemical products to extract high-value materials or components which can be used in new applications.
  • Thermal recycling: using the heat generated by burning waste to generate electricity

Dumping still accounts for 16% and is not considered part of recycling. In addition to that, 15% of plastic waste is sent overseas, mostly in China.

As we can see, what comes into the common definition of recycling includes Material recycling and Chemical recycling.

Definitions having been made, how are the different methods actually used?

Devenir des déchets plastique au Japon en 2018
Dumpster fire IS recycling in Japan!

This bar towering above all others? Thermal recycling. Aka dumpster fire. 56% of all plastic waste is just burnt.

Sending waste far from the Japanese eyes? Another 15%.

Which leaves 12% of plastic being actually recycled. Far from the 80% officially announced! An I am not sure the recent hype over bubble tea will help.

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