Experiment: Eliminate the use of disposable chop-sticks, plastic bags and bottles

November 9, 2008

in daily life, green, japan

I don’t try to be an eco-hero but to test on myself if it is possible to severely minimize the use of certain disposable products. I live in Tokyo, a city which has a lot of eco-friendly habits but also some very nasty ones regarding the use of disposable materials like: chopsticks, plastic beverage bottles and plastic bags. Japan in general, and Tokyo in particular, is full of vending machines with the ones selling non-alcoholic drinks being the most ubiquitous of them all (according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association an average 1 vending machine every 22 inhabitants!). It is very comfortable to be walking around and just grab a drink from one when you are thirsty, specially during the hot and humid summer months. You can find them: on the street, in the subways stations and train tracks, inside buildings and hotels, in shops and even on the mountains! They generate an immense amount of PET and other plastic bottles. Fortunately, Japanese people tend to be very clean and mindful about recycling, so probably a big part of them do not end in landfills, but anyway they are still mostly waste (I wonder how many of them end up as useful recycled products).

Vending Machines

A similar thing happens with disposable (mostly wood or bamboo) chopsticks: once required for hygienic reasons, nowadays Japanese consume more than 25 billion chopsticks per year, 95% of them imported mainly from China and other Asiatic countries. It is a huge industry but it’s becoming unsustainable for a world that is getting “hot, flat and crowded” (Tom Friedman dixit). A similar problem occurs in China, where more than 45 billion are consumed each year. It is not only about the waste produced by these tons of chopsticks but also the fact that with actual population growth rates and consumption, there is not enough bamboo to produce them and we are depleting bamboo forests at a higher rate that the time needed to regenerate them.

And what about plastic bags? Japanese are maniacs regarding packaging, in particular of food. While it might be a nice thing for presents, it is more often ridiculous to have something packed in 3 stratus of plastic, paper, etc. Even when you buy a bar of chocolate the salesman will try to put it inside a plastic bag.

I believe that in most situations the use of these products (one-use plastic bottles, chopsticks and plastic bags) can be avoided and we could make a positive impact on the environment. I understand that some industries will suffer but I also think that when a constraint is applied, a full array of new opportunities can bloom.

The solution I am testing on myself, to fully understand the implications, is to carry my own reusable chopsticks, an eco-bag that fits in my pocket and a plastic bottle that I can refill with tap water. These should apply for at least 70-80% of my everyday situations. There will be times that I won’t be able to avoid the use of these kind of disposable products, but I hope those to be the exceptions instead of the norm. And if I get a plastic bag to carry something, I will use it for my home’s garbage. If I want to buy a beverage apart from tap water, say a sports drink, I’ll buy a huge 2 liter bottle at the supermarket and refill my carry-on bottle.

I found the tools for this experiment, portable chopsticks, 500ml drink bottle and eco-bag, at (yes, you guessed right!) Muji, one of my fav stores. These guys usually sell very “environmentally conscious” products.

Muji eco-friendly stuff

Most restaurants that serve their food in ceramic (or non disposable) must do the washing somehow, be it manually or in a dishwasher. Why not offer reusable chopsticks or cutlery and was them too? It is said that Japanese people don’t want to use chopsticks used by others, so they should carry their own. As a matter of fact, there’s a movement called “bring your own chopsticks” though in my everyday life I haven’t seen much people doing it. More on the “My-Hashi” movement here.

What would happen if everyone adopted a similar attitude?

How many trees would be saved?

How much garbage would never be produced?

How much less oil  (for making plastic produts) could we consume?

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