Circular Economy

Zero-waste shopping comes to Japan

plastic waste, shown here, is a major global problem

Loop is a retail supplier that offers recyclable, reusable packaging to tackle the world's plastic problem. Image: UNSPLASH/Antoine GIRET

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Plastic Pollution

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  • Loop has partnered with a major Japanese retailer as it continues to roll out its circular economy approach to retail around the world.
  • Most Japanese citizens want more action to address plastic pollution.
  • Shoppers’ attitudes and habits will have to change if we are going to tackle the plastic pollution problem effectively.

Loop, the retail supplier that offers recyclable, reusable packaging, has partnered with one of the largest supermarket chains in Japan.

A total of 19 stores and outlets from the retail giant Aeon will carry a range of products in Loop packaging. The participating stores are mostly in or near metropolitan Tokyo, which is home to more than 37 million people.

Loop was developed by the recycling company TerraCycle and was first announced at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in 2019. The service charges shoppers a fee that allows them to use – and reuse – a range of returnable containers. Empty containers are collected by Loop, then washed and used again. There are no single-use plastics.

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Two-thirds of Japan’s plastic waste is incinerated

Plastic pollution is a major concern to many Japanese people, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

The Japanese have a word for being less wasteful, ‘mottainai’, but although recycling infrastructure is in place, very little plastic actually gets recycled.

Each year, Japan generates around 9.4 million tonnes of plastic waste. Around 67% of Japan’s plastic waste is incinerated, which the EIA says releases harmful toxins, with 8% ending up in landfill.

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What is Loop and how does it work?

A poll for the EIA found two-thirds believe the country should support a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution.

With individual citizens each responsible for 37kg of single-use plastic waste per year, Japan is one of the world’s biggest generators of single-use plastic.

this chart shows how much single-waste plastic countries generate, with Australia generating the most in kilograms
Single-use plastic waste is a problem for many developed economies, Japan included. Image: Statista

Many developed countries, including Japan, export their plastic waste to be processed in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Until 2017, China was also a major destination for such exports, but since then it has stopped accepting imports of many different types of foreign waste, including plastic.

This has put pressure on those countries who had been sending their trash to China to find alternative ways of disposing of it.

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A joined-up approach is needed

The simple act of reducing the amount of disposable packaging in use globally will ultimately relieve some of the pressure on waste disposal.

However, single-use plastic is hardwired into many business processes and products – not least because it is so cheap. It is also a major element in many millions of people’s shopping habits, keeping food fresher for longer without having a noticeable effect on prices. Any deviation from its use could mean higher prices and greater inconvenience.

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Overcoming these factors will not be easy. Loop’s founder and CEO, Tom Szaky, has openly acknowledged that challenge but remains upbeat about it, saying: “The greatest obstacle in creating a platform like Loop is that it relies on many partners acting together in a symbiotic way.

That will involve everything from innovation in packaging materials, through to more economically sustainable domestic recycling, and changes to consumer habits. To address the latter, Loop says it has made the process of returning used containers as simple as possible for customers.

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