Eco-Friendly in Japan
Whether you live in Japan or are just visiting, there are lots of ways to reduce your environmental impact! If you’re as confused as I was when I first moved to Japan as to what I could do to be more conscious and intentional, read on. Here is a list of 10 easy and effective ways to be gentler to the planet whilst in Japan:
1. Refuse Plastic Bags
Did you know that an average plastic bag is used for 12 minutes, and then takes over 500 years to decompose? This is a simple way to reduce your plastic consumption, whether at a convenience store (コンビニ, conbini), supermarket, or when you’re out shopping. A handy phrase is ‘fukuro iranai des’ (袋いらないです), meaning ‘I don’t need a bag’. Either carry what you’re buying or bring your own bag!
2. Avoid Plastic Bottles
With the thousands of vending machines everywhere, it can be tempting to buy lots of bottles every day. Even if plastic bottles are recycled, they can only be recycled a few times, as the quality of the plastic degrades in the energy-heavy process.
Vending machines are ubiquitous.
If you must buy a PET bottle, try to buy the biggest one available, as this is more eco-friendly than buying lots of smaller ones! I used to do this with Pocari Sweat and Oi oi ocha tea, until I discovered that they are also available in powder form to make yourself! Better for the planet and the wallet. There are lots of alternatives out there, so keep your eyes peeled.
Perhaps you can’t resist your favorite brand of iced coffee at the conbini. Look for the canned alternative instead, as aluminum can theoretically be recycled an infinite number of times, with no degradation in the quality of materials.
When disposing of your PET bottle or can, make sure you put it in the correct bin.
3. Bring and Use Your Own Chopsticks
Many restaurants in Japan provide disposable chopsticks. A simple way to avoid using these is to bring your own. If you are just visiting, shops like Daiso or even supermarkets sell chopsticks made of natural materials like wood for cheap! Chopsticks are small, light and easy to carry around, and also make for the perfect souvenir! Use your own chopsticks when getting takeout too.
Ramen and sushi taste better with reusable chopsticks!
4. Avoid Plastic-Wrapped Disposable Hand Towels
Japan is at the forefront of hospitality and cleanliness. But try not to use the plastic-wrapped otefuki (お手ふき) hand towels when you are in a restaurant. Wash your hands with soap and water in the bathroom instead. Some eateries provide reusable towels that heated in winter and chilled in summer – these are fine!
5. Ask for Your Drink in a Real Mug
If you’re sitting in at a café where the default is serving drinks in takeaway cups, just ask for your drink to be in a real mug. A handy word is magu kappu (マグカップ), which means ‘mug [cup]’. Your drink will look and taste better too!
6. Bring Your Own Takeaway Coffee Cup
This is a simple switch that you can use when taking away at cafes and even at conbini coffee machines! Especially at cafes, the barista will often also kindly fill your cup with a little extra at no additional cost. A reusable coffee cup is an easy staple, whether you live in Japan or are a tourist here, as you can also use it to make your own coffee at home (cheaper and often tastier). If you don’t have or forget your own coffee cup at a cafe, avoid the plastic coffee cup lid and extra sleeve if you can.
7. Buy Loose fruit and Vegetables at the Supermarket
If you’re shopping at a supermarket, go for the loose fruit and vegetables that aren’t wrapped in plastic. Don’t put them in those plastic produce bags either – you’ll be washing or peeling them before you eat them anyway!
Where possible, shop at a local produce shop nearby instead. There are plenty of them in Japan, and this is a good way to support the local economy. Shopping here is usually also cheaper and the product has not traveled as far.
In a similar vein, try to also avoid other food products or processed foods that come individually wrapped in plastic. Japan is world-renowned for its beautiful plastic packaging, but all of this, of course, takes its toll on the environment. Keep this in mind also when buying omiyage souvenirs for family, friends, or colleagues, and when buying items you are sure to use a lot of, like dish soap or shampoo. In these instances, buy the largest container or package you can find, rather than smaller individual packets!
Unpackaged senbei rice crackers at a local specialist shop, perfect for omiyage souvenirs
8. Bring Your Own Lunch
Bento lunch boxes are a huge part of Japanese culinary culture. Children usually bring elaborate lunchboxes to school, workplaces sell them for cheap, there is a huge array of bentos available at supermarkets and conbinis, and you can also find special train journey bentos called eki-ben (駅弁), or ‘station lunchbox’.
As delicious as these are (and worth trying once for the cultural experience!), bento boxes are often made of plastic or Styrofoam, with separate plastic dividers, toothpicks with plastic wrappers, disposable chopsticks and hand wipes, rubber bands, and they usually also come in individual plastic bags. Even wooden lunchboxes have a plastic coating on the inside either for decoration or to prevent leaks.
A much more eco-friendly (and cheaper!) alternative, especially if you live in Japan or are staying somewhere like a hostel or Airbnb with kitchen facilities, is to prepare your own lunch and take it with you. For easy items like sandwiches, buy a small traditional wooden bento box or wrap it in a small cloth, or for more elaborate meals, get yourself a Tupperware or similar reusable container. Wrap it in a reusable and beautiful traditional furoshiki wrapping cloth for a quintessentially Japanese bento feel! Furoshiki are also a great gift idea.
9. Refuse straws
An easy swap to make in Japan is to refuse plastic drinking straws when you are out and about. Simply say sutoro nashi (ストローなし, meaning ‘no straw’). Places to watch out for are at cafes when you ordered any type of iced drink, at kombinis or supermarkets when you buy cartons of beverages (even milk!), at bars or restaurants, and when you buy drinks like bubble tea. If you really do want to use a straw, get yourself a steel or bamboo reusable one. Some places may have paper straws if you are lucky, but it’s still, of course, better to go without!
10. Shop Second-Hand
Shopping second-hand or vintage is an excellent way to save some money, be kind to the planet by diverting items from landfill and preventing the manufacture of new products and minimizing new resources and get your hands on unique and beautiful items.
For residents in Japan, buying items like furniture; electronic goods like refrigerators, microwaves, or washing machines; crockery; curtains; even cars, used, can save you a lot of money. With items being offered at only a fraction of a price of the new, often with no difference in quality. Look for bargains at Recycle Shops (リサイクルショップ) in your area or online.
Another handy place to look is on social media, such as groups on Facebook or websites like Craigslist. People often give away belongings in like-new condition. This is because many ex-pats and students stay for short periods of time and then have to leave again and have nowhere to dispose of their furniture! Keep in mind to never pay for anything in advance of seeing the item, and remember to make use of this system if/when you leave Japan too! Doing this will also save you disposal fees that are incurred for larger items.
For tourists and residents alike, shopping for books, knick-knacks or clothing second-hand or vintage is a fun activity in itself. For those in larger cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka, you will often find trendy areas specializing in second-hand items. Japan boasts well-ordered second-hand shops, with products organized according to brand, style, color, size, you name it!
Vintage silk kimonos and cotton yukatas (like kimonos, but for summer) are an excellent memento of your time in Japan and can be bought for as little as 500 yen. Check out your nearest second-hand stores or look for a nearby vintage fair or flea market. These are treasure troves of items and a fun way to interact with locals too.
Second-hand kimonos and yukatas are a great memento for an affordable price.
Some popular second-hand clothing stores include Second Street, Wego, and Mode Off. For books, manga, videos, and other miscellaneous items, try the nationwide chain, Book Off. Hard Off sells electric items.
Let’s All Become More Eco-Friendly in Japan!
So what are you waiting for? Try out some of these steps to lead a more eco-friendly life in Japan!
Maia / UK