I had one of my first bits of “culture shock” when I bought a box of cookies at a grocery store in Asakusa, Japan only to find out that each of the cookies was individually wrapped. All those extra layers of plastic, separating me from my beloved chocolate cookies made it a bit difficult to finish the entire box in one sitting (but don’t worry, I did).
The next day I went into a bakery to buy some melon bread, only to watch them put the melon bread in a small plastic bag, put the bag in a bakery box, and put the box in a larger bag. I mean, all I wanted to do was eat the melon bread.
I started to wonder about the amount of waste produced by the “let’s individually package everything” culture in Japan, and how troublesome and silly to have to open up several rounds of packaging every single time they buy something. And then I wondered also about the cost… How much am I paying for the cookies and how much am I paying for the packaging?
I know a lot of us love how fancy even the most mundane products are in Japan. But these sort of thoughts keep popping in my head, especially the environmental one… It really struck me almost instantly that the culture has a serious packaging fetish. Walking through the supermarkets, my eyes were drawn to fruit that you’d expect to be naked and out in the open but was instead hibernating inside three layers of plastic and cocooned in foam netting.
Japan is one of the world’s foremost recyclers, in 2010, 77 percent of the country’s plastic waste was recycled, however the level of packaging wastage throughout Japan is in complete contrast to the country’s recycling efforts.
Individual bananas are enveloped in whole sheets of cellophane before being sold, the condensation building up inside the packaging. I stood, holding my sweaty banana, wondering what was wrong with the natural, biodegradable skin around it.
I wondered if this packaging issue of obsessive presentation, is a Japanese tradition?
Talking with some Japanese people in different cities about this, they assured me that things are way ‘better’ than a couple of years ago. Packaging is getting less and less and there is a communal effort supported by the government, to change that.
In fact, Paul (my partner) travelled to Japan 17 years ago and he did notice a massive difference in the amount of packaging but no loss in presentation skills or quality in the products.