Even though the volume of generated waste in Japan declined in recent years, it still amounted to over 41 million metric tons annually. Household waste made up most of the generated waste, including large amounts of plastic waste. Due to the widespread usage of disposable plastic products, land and marine waste pollution has become a major environmental issue.
Recycling is the process of remanufacturing waste materials into new materials. One of the main reasons why recycling is promoted in the waste industry is that it can reduce the burden on the environment by reducing the volume of final waste disposal and preventing waste pollution. However, Japan has one of the lowest recycling rates among industrialized countries, remaining at close to 20 percent throughout the past decade.
Waste management in Japan
As it can easily reduce the volume of waste, incineration is the most widely used waste treatment method in Japan. In recent years, the incineration rate of municipal waste increased to close to 75 percent. Despite filtering technologies, which avoid the release of huge amounts of fumes, the incineration process produces greenhouse gases that contribute to air pollution and global warming.
Waste that cannot be recycled or incinerated is disposed of as landfill. Even though the volume of final waste disposal declined in recent years, Japan is facing a shortage of landfill sites as the remaining capacity of landfill sites is shrinking.
Japan used to export large amounts of plastic waste, mostly to other Asian countries. But the export volume dropped when China banned plastic waste imports in 2017. Consequently, the island nation needs to find new and more sustainable ways of dealing with its waste.
Recycling in Japan
In Japan, waste is usually sorted into categories by citizens before it is collected and is not picked up if the strict waste separation guidelines are not followed. Following the Container and Packaging Recycling Law, plastic, paper, PET bottles, aluminum, and glass are collected separately to be recycled. The recycling is then conducted by the government-designated organization Japanese Container and Package Recycling Association (JCPRA). Business entities are required to pay a recycling fee to the JCPRA. There are further recycling laws that target other materials such as food waste, construction materials, or electrical home appliances.
In recent years, the majority of recycling business entities were specialized in recycling plastic materials. In contrast to the low overall recycling rate, the recycling rate for plastic waste increased to 86 percent. However, thermal recycling remained the main recycling method. With this method, plastic waste is incinerated to generate energy. Only a small amount is reused for its materials to produce new plastic products.
The so-called 3R initiative is one of the efforts of the Japanese government to increase recycling rates and reduce waste volumes. The initiative encourages citizens and companies to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste. Furthermore, in April 2022, the Japanese government passed the Act on Promotion of Resource Circulation for Plastics. Retailers that provide specified plastic products such as plastic cutlery are now required to implement initiatives to reduce the waste volumes of these items, for example, by charging for them or offering items made from alternative materials. Additionally, municipalities must sort, collect, and recycle not only plastic container and packaging waste but also other plastic product waste.
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