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Living Lightly column

Travelling Sustainably in Japan

By Julianna Toth

The first time I travelled to Japan, I remember being shocked at how much plastic was used on a daily basis – individual fruits wrapped in plastic; pastries placed into plastic bags, then bagged up again in plastic; brand new shoes individually wrapped in plastic bags. Excessive layers of plastic wrapping. There seemed to be very little culture around minimal plastic waste.

For my second visit to Japan, earlier this year, I decided to make a real effort to travel as plastic free as possible. Japan has a pretty average record on recycling for a developed nation, recycling only about 20 per cent, while incinerating 80 per cent of their waste.

Japan’s waste system does a good job of capturing plastic waste before it gets into waterways and oceans. But the incineration process is heavily dependent on fossil fuel generated power.

If you’re planning to go to Japan and want to travel sustainably, here are a few tips.

  • Buy a set of reusable chopsticks and carry it with you everywhere – fine dining or not, a lot of restaurants supply you with disposable chopsticks which are wrapped in plastic. These disposable chopsticks are also largely created from unsustainably logged forests;
  • Wash your hands before eating – rather than using disposable hand sanitised tissues given to you (also wrapped in plastic);
  • Take a spacious backpack or extra carry bag around with when you go grocery or retail shopping;
  • If you go to a bakery or a food take-away shop/vendor insist that your food be wrapped in absolute minimal plastic;
  • Learn or take a screenshot on your phone of Japan’s recycling symbols – so that you can recycle the waste correctly;
  • Try to do grocery shopping or even eat meals at markets. Market stores use less plastic wrapping;
  • And, it goes without saying, take a reusable drink bottle with your everywhere.

These tips sound pretty basic, but can make a real difference. I definitely encountered a lot of surprised shopkeepers when I said I didn’t want a bag. I find that a quick Google search about your destination’s recycling habits and waste can help you travel in a much more sustainable manner.