Is Plastic “Waste” or “Resource” in Japan?

In Japan plastic used to be, or for many people it still is, considered a positive thing because we “recycle” it and it is a “resource” to create new items. Is recycling plastic really helping the environment?

Japan is the second in terms of the amount of plastic waste per person, only after the USA. Although the China’s ban of buying “waste plastic” from overseas has a big impact in Japan, the progress of “reducing waste” seems slow, and in many places it still seems like they focus more on “recycling” rather than “reducing”. Why can’t it be reduced in Japan and how can it be reduced?



How are plastic bottles recycled?

In japan plastic bottles are collected separately from other waste, by local governments, as resource waste. Collected plastic bottles are sorted, compressed, and packed at intermediate waste treatment facilities, then decomposed into raw materials at recycling factories to make fabric, dishes, food packages and etc. On the other hand, the plastic bottles disposed at offices and vending machines are sent to the waste disposal facilities at the responsibility of the businesses (manufacturers and sellers), not the local governments. Here, only around one-fourth of the materials collected are recycled to make fabric, hangers, and etc, and the rest used to be sold to China and Southeast Asia as resource.
Since China has prohibited from buying waste from overseas, more plastic remains and the problems are 1. the amount of plastic bottles recycled exceed the needs of the items made of the recycled plastic bottles, and 2. newly produced plastic items are usually cheaper than the recycled items.

Why are some plastic items “burnable” and others “recycle”?

Have you wondered why some plastic items are collected as “burnable waste” while others are collected as “plastic waste” in Japan? Isn’t it confusing? (The waste disposal rules differ depending on the place where you live.)

Burning plastic has been viewed as a problem as it generates dioxins. There are some supermarkets where they charge customers for plastic bags or give them discount for bringing their own bags. But in 2008, plastic was changed to “burnable waste” in Tokyo. Although I disagree with the idea of burning plastic, or even using it, I’ve found there’re two major reasons why plastic has become “burnable waste” in Tokyo.


  1. When the performance of incinerators was poor in the past, burning plastic could damage the incineration facilities, but the technology has improved the performance and now it causes less damage. And, the amount of dioxins generated has been significantly reduced by installing a filter to remove dioxins from the late 1990s.
  2. For plastic containers and packaging, the manufacturers and sellers bear the cost of recycling, that’s why these plastic containers and packaging are collected as “resource”. On the other hand, they’re not responsible for bearing the cost of recycling the product itself. For example, if you buy a pen with a plastic package, the package goes to “plastic waste” while the pen goes to “burnable”. Or plastic hangers go to “burnable” because these are the products. Recycling is expensive, if you want to recycle plastic products you will need a lot of taxes.


It’s not encouraging to know that Japan is shifting to just “burn” plastic because it’s cheaper while the world is moving towards to reduce the use of plastics. What are your thoughts?


About ComeonUP zero waste sharehouse project

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5 Steps to Reduce Food Waste in Japan


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