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Environment

Japan's Dangerous Packaging Fetish

The country's obsession with bags and wrappers and disposable items is likely bad for the environment—is there any way to change people's deeply ingrained habits? I spoke with an expert in consumer behavior to find out.

by Daniel Milroy Maher
Sep 25 2014, 12:10pm

All photos by Joseph Eaton

Japan is one of the world's foremost recyclers. In 2010, 77 percent of the country's plastic waste was recycled, and recent reports put the figure for total amount of wastage sent to landfills at a relatively low 16 percent (the comparable US figure is close to a shameful 70 percent).

However, the level of packaging wastage throughout Japan is in complete contrast to the country's recycling efforts. I don't want to give anyone a lesson in how to sustain a green economy—I take 20-minute showers, after all—but when I visited Japan it struck me almost instantly that the culture has a serious packaging fetish. Walking through the supermarkets, my eyes were drawn to fruit that you'd expect to be naked and out in the open but was instead hibernating inside three layers of plastic and cocooned in foam netting.

Individual bananas were enveloped in whole sheets of cellophane before being sold, the condensation building up inside the packaging. I stood, holding my sweaty banana, wondering what was wrong with the natural, biodegradable skin around it. Every corner shop stocked these abominations.

Restaurants were no different; instead of plastic chopsticks that could be washed after use, you were provided with an endless supply of disposable wooden ones. I'm not suggesting this is the sole reason why Japan is destroying Siberia's forests, but it could well be one of them. Reusable cloth napkins were nonexistent as well, replaced with paper napkins, aprons, and bibs. Obviously this happens in the UK and other Western nations, but I'm talking haute cuisine establishments here, not White Castle.

Is this packaging issue about obsessive presentation, a Japanese tradition? If so, has it now become a problem, and how can it be solved? To get a more authoritative viewpoint on the subject, I spoke to Roy Larke, an expert on retailing, consumer behavior, and marketing who was previously based at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

VICE: Do you perceive this over-packaging issue as a problem for the environment?
Roy Larke: Clearly it is a problem, doubly so given the high propensity to consume packaged products in Japan and the high population. The only proviso would be that Japan is currently pretty good at cleaning up, so at least you don't see too much litter compared with some cities around the world.

Why do you think this is happening? Does it have anything to do with hygiene?
It is partially hygiene and regulations relating to it. Lush cosmetics had issues with packaging when they arrived in Japan, as most of their products overseas are open for people to touch and smell. Equally, the bags that cornflakes are placed in inside the box are much higher quality than those expected or acceptable outside of Japan. I don't know of any research or surveys that have checked on customers' worries over hygiene, but it's likely that some would indeed be put off if this wrapping didn't take place.

The biggest factors are actually tradition, inertia, and what the Japanese would generally consider to be ingrained customer expectations. It wouldn't do to be the only company that sold chocolates that weren't wrapped individually, for example. Equally for confectionery, cookies, and so on. It's convenience: The Japanese like to keep a supply [of sweets] on them, so individual wrapping is preferred by many. (There was a Nikkei survey last year that found the majority of women kept a few chocolates in their bags at all times to help them when they wanted to relax.)

There's also the fact that wrapping, excessive or otherwise, is seen as an additional touch of luxury. Hence the automatic multiple layers of wrapping and carrier bags at department stores—which also help to convey the brand—or the placing of each piece of bread from a bakery into its own plastic bag, complete with individual twist tie at some chains. The wrapping of fruit in supermarkets is, I think, a bit rarer, and is often used mostly for "higher-end" items.

Does it seem like consumers in Japan are generally aware of the issue?
That's difficult to answer. Very generally speaking, I'd say no. However, if you asked a typical Japanese consumer, my guess is that they'd profess outrage at the amount of packaging but be unwilling to change their behavior. Arguably, choosing to consume less packaging is very difficult in Japan.

So it wouldn't be a simple problem to solve?
Yes and no. Primarily, it's hard to say that it is a problem. Like whaling, to Western and global eyes, it certainly is, but to Japanese eyes—both corporate and consumer—it's probably less of a problem because it's a part of life.

The initiatives that currently exist, that I know of, are things like Coca-Cola's water scheme and IKEA's efforts to promote less packaging, and quite a few others, including some from Japanese brands. These seem to work extremely well—partly, I suspect, because they remain in the minority and so stand out in marketing terms. A tiny handful of supermarkets now promote reusable shopping bags—I know of one that expects customers to pay for shopping bags—but most veer away from this, or at best ask for donations if consumers want a bag.

There are quite a few government initiatives moving towards change, including the requirement to properly recycle all electrical goods, for example, and these will grow.

But—trying not to be in any way "anti–Japanese tradition"—the volume of waste must clearly be an issue. As is common historically in Japan, solving this issue may well take place once the issue reaches close to crisis point, and then, yes, it will be solved—just as with the power crisis post–March of 2011, when people switched to using less power.

Japan demonstrates incredible single-mindedness and political docility when it comes to solving such problems that are demonstrably for the public good. When the landfills are finally overflowing, things will certainly change and change extremely quickly.

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