The Burning Problem of Japan’s Waste Disposal

Japan has one of the lowest recycling rates in the OECD – but in the absence of government action, community-led initiatives are pushing for change.

In a recycling factory an hour and a half outside Tokyo, workers rigorously sort through conveyor belts of waste, segregating and classifying materials for recycling until almost nothing is left. The hydraulic diggers on site are electric powered—they don’t emit CO2 or fumes from burning diesel— and sprays of rainwater keep dust down and the environment clean. Up to 98% of the industrial waste that comes here is recycled, with only 2% going to landfills or incineration.

It was once labelled an air polluter, but the operator of this facility, Ishizaka Group, has made a 180 degree turn. Its transition from operating simple waste incinerators to more complex material recycling came in response to public backlash against the ill effects of emissions. CEO Noriko Ishizaka experienced the reaction as a child, when her neighbors in Saitama prefecture protested against the company, then run by her father. Today, Ms. Ishizaka is confident enough in her plant’s green credentials that she has opened it to the public, with viewing platforms overlooking the giant processing floor. 10,000 visitors pass through every year.

The factory is just one project within Ishizaka Group’s community-centered enterprise. Like many groups tackling the growing problems of our consumer societies, they aim to instill an awareness of waste through place-based environmental education. However, while the factory has very successfully attracted locals and parents looking for educational daytrips, the question remains whether the initiative can generate enough outreach to impact mainstream consumers and manufacturers.

“If you stress activism too much it turns people off”

 Ms. Ishizaka says she wants to make the nation of mono-zukuri – manufacturing – as obsessed with how products are disposed as how they are made. Yet with national policies that fail to reflect a climate emergency, discussion on environmental degradation often appears wholly absent at the state level in Japan. 

Beyond the humdrum of government talk, however, local-level initiatives are well and truly alive, albeit driving the conversation on environmental action on a much smaller scale. Dotted around Tokyo, for example, a number of social movement groups have begun the task of initiating low waste lifestyles. Among them is No Plastic Japan, founded by Mona Neuhauss. Neuhauss runs her business of providing stainless straws as an alternative to plastic straws in addition to her full-time job at a PR company.

“If you stress activism too much it turns people off,” said Neuhauss, noting that this explains why environmental movements in Japan tend to be more low-key than their European counterparts. “I like to call it yurui activism,” she said, which translates loosely into ‘soft’ activism based on practicing what one preaches—or not preaching at all. The challenge is making people aware, and then encouraging everyday life changes from not using plastic straws to refusing single-use plastic bags, she said.

Japan has one of the lowest recycling rates in the OECD – and 78% of the remaining waste is incinerated.

Single-use plastics have emerged as a symbol of consumer waste, providing environmental groups with easy ammunition to promote green consciousness. However, Japan can’t seem to end its love affair with them. Having come under increasing international criticism for producing 9.1 million tons of plastic waste per annum, the Japanese government has been nudged towards a discussion on plastic bag charges—a policy many other countries jumped on board with over a decade ago.

But the waste problem goes beyond the scale of consumption. With approximately 73% of the Japanese archipelago occupied by mountains, and much of the rest crowded with people, there is little room for landfill, so what cannot be recycled is mostly burned. And recycling is surprisingly rare: Japan has one of the lowest recycling rates among OECD countries, at only 20% in 2017. Some 78% of the remaining waste is sent to incinerators—by far the highest among the OECD bloc.

Without filtering technology, incineration releases a huge quantity of dioxins and CO2 into the atmosphere. In the 90s, this meant that waste-disposing areas like Saitama, a convenient backyard for the Tokyo metropolis, became visibly polluted. This triggered health concerns – many of the emissions were carcinogenic – and stigma against local produce. The mounting wave of condemnation compelled some businesses like Ishizaka Group to minimize combustibles and increase recycling.

Local-level, bottom-up solutions are just as necessary as national-level policy approaches.

Today, ‘environmentally friendly’ incinerator technologies, which use ultra-high-temperature furnaces and filter systems to avoid polluting the atmosphere, have become the de-facto process of waste combustion. Dioxins no longer pose a major threat. Still, all this burning produces exhaust fumes that contribute to climate change, while Japan’s reliance on burning its waste fails to put the “3Rs” – reduce, reuse, recycle – at the heart of its waste strategy. The out of sight, out of mind attitude enabled by incineration keeps waste invisible and its problems hard to grasp.

It is difficult to gauge whether yurui activism will be enough to popularize the 3Rs among the average consumer, let alone spark the kind of change groups like Fridays for Future – the global climate change activist movement – demand from governments. But it is still a necessary approach, and in a society that claims to value consensus and shies away from conflict, yurui activism may be the most appropriate pathway for social change. It may even dodge the attacks of reactionary critics who label uncompromising environmentalists radical or ‘extremist’.

According to Ishizaka, consumers in Japan tend to prioritize price over environmental or ethical concerns. In a supply-demand market, this kind of cost-first mentality – among both consumers and manufacturers – is central to the production models that create so much of our planet’s waste. A cultural shift towards a circular economy therefore requires a community – one that is mindful of the waste flows in everyday life. That’s why local-level, bottom-up solutions are just as necessary as national-level policy ones.

For Ishizaka, that means opening up the factory for visitors to witness what waste disposal really is. “I want people to come to the factory and make up their own mind – I don’t want to enforce values upon people”, she says. Undoubtedly, forging green consciousness among consumers still looks to be a Sisyphean task in Japan. But with the factory doors open and social movement groups gaining momentum, hopes of improving education and awareness around recycling look a bit brighter in a country that is still coming to grips with the scale of its waste problem.

Reinventing Japan

This article was produced based on a series of events organized by Asia Pacific Initiative as part of the “Reinventing Japan” project. All opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the institutional position of Asia Pacific Initiative.

This piece was based on a presentation followed by discussion by Ms. Noriko Ishizaka, the President of Ishizaka Group.

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Lauren Altria is a research intern at Asia Pacific Initiative and a Masters student in International Relations at Waseda University. She previously worked as a research associate at The Economist, and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Oxford.

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