Can Japan Break Its Addiction to Disposable Packaging?

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

Japan is infamous for its excessive, often elaborate, plastic packaging. Want a single slice of cake? At a department store, it will likely come in a box graced with an ice pack and plastic utensil, wrapped in a bag which is wrapped in another bag that gets taped shut, even if you want to eat it a few feet from the point of purchase, even if you request, “No bag, please.” With the system stacked against ecologically minded consumers, how can people opt out of all this and reduce the waste they generate from supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores? For The Japan Times, journalist Andrew McKirdy collected all the disposable waste he generated in a week, from straws to bottles to shopping bags, then tried to spend a week without using single-use plastic. Experts warned him it would be tough. It was.

I then beat a hasty retreat from a bakery whose products are all pre-wrapped, then buy a tomato, five potatoes, a carrot, an onion, a jar of jam and a can of tomatoes at a supermarket. The cashier is unconcerned when I say I don’t want a bag, but she looks at me like I’m some kind of eccentric when I say I don’t want my potatoes placed in a smaller plastic bag either.

I am beginning to feel slightly embarrassed, and that only increases when I buy three slices of ham at a different supermarket’s delicatessen counter. The clerk agrees to wrap them in paper, but he tells me they might fall out if he doesn’t then put the package in a plastic bag. When I ask him not to, he looks at me like I’m a full-blown lunatic.

There is another awkward moment when I buy a baguette and a smaller piece of bread at a bakery. The clerk puts the baguette in a paper bag but puts the other piece of bread in a plastic bag. My request to put both in paper is met with confusion, and as I’ve had enough of making a fuss in shops that I often visit, I smile, accept defeat and take my plastic-wrapped bread back home.

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