Plastic bags are just the tip of the melting ice berg

Dear readers, I have one word for you, “plastics.”


If you don’t recognize that film reference, I feel sorry for you. However, I’m not talking about a career, unless your university degree is in environmental studies. I’m talking about waste. Lots of it. Tons of it. Mountains of it. And, of course, I’m talking about you, Japan.  

However, I believe too much emphasis is placed on plastic bags. The kind that goods are placed in at convenience stores and supermarkets. For example, since our local Summit supermarket started taxing shoppers for bags, nearly everyone brings their own re-useable bag. And this is true at most supermarkets around Japan these days. I’m concerned with all the other bits of random plastic that are part of the Japan consumer experience.


Would you like a spoon with your cone?

Case in point. Take a visit to Baskin Robbins, affectionately known as “31” in Japan, and the name behind not only delicious ice cream but perhaps the greatest brand logo in the history of logos. The first thing that happens when you walk in the door is that a sales clerk will thrust a free ice cream sample on a tiny, sturdy pink plastic spoon, into your face. Free ice cream. Impossible to refuse. It’s gone in seconds and so is the single-use spoon.

Now you have a dilemma. Do you request another sample of a flavor you want to try and waste another spoon, adding more plastic to the landfills and oceans of our fair planet, or just make your purchase? Anyway, you finally decide on butter brickle and request a cone. Best way to enjoy ice cream in my book—strolling around on a hot summer day with an ice cream cone.

Here’s where the insanity begins, in Japan at least, they give you ANOTHER pink plastic spoon with your ice cream cone. Who needs a spoon with an ice cream cone? That’s like getting a fork with a sandwich. I always refuse it, but sometimes I'm not quick enough and I wonder what happens to that spoon that has touched my ice cream. I’ll bet you it gets tossed as well. However, I often see Japanese people eating ice cream cones with spoons. Go figure.


Wrap it up. I’ll trash it.

These kinds of transactions happen a thousand times a day in Tokyo. You buy anything from convenience store, say a quart of milk and if you’re not quick enough, they’ll thrust a plastic straw into your bag. The other day I bought two onigiri (rice balls), which are designed to be eaten by hand. No other way to do it, in fact. And a fork was put in my plastic bag along with my plastic wrapped onigiri. We have a whole collection of these forks and spoons and straws at home, patiently awaiting a picnic that never happens.

 Japan is a nation of wrapping, and I’m not talking about kimono. Wrapping things that are individually wrapped, placed in boxes wrapped in plastic, placed in plastic bags, placed in fancy paper bags.  We know this because we have to separate our trash into “burnable” and “non-burnable” bags and every week we stuff all that single-use plastic into plastic bags to be left for the trash collectors and hauled off to where?

If you want to impress a tourist or your friends back home, give them a box of tea or rice crackers or sweet bean paste cakes. The first thing they will say is, “I love the packaging. Everything is wrapped so beautifully.” Beautifully and needlessly. Like the wrapping paper from a birthday present, all that beautiful wrapping, which is usually made of plastic, goes in the bin minutes after it’s seen. From there it’s heading straight to the nearest landfill or ocean and washing up soon at a beach near you.

It’s green, plastic and inedible. What’s it for?

Your average “gift” box of sembei (rice crackers) or sweet bean cakes will feature a box of say nine individually wrapped portions in a cardboard box, with a molded plastic tray featuring slots for each treat and often a plastic sleeve that goes over the whole thing which is topped by another cardboard cover. It’s a modest amount of food that will leave enough trash to start your own landfill.  

Sushi grass.JPG

Another bit of plastic that foreigners living in Japan find perplexing are the fake pieces of grass (haran leaf), that come with convenience store sashimi. Purely decorative, these little pieces of plastic serve absolutely no purpose. Unlike artificial grass which you can play sports on or artificial flowers, which at least look beautiful from afar, these little monsters are ugly and completely unnecessary. Why do they exist? Tradition? Ignorance? It’s probably money, like everything thing else. Somebody always gains when the environment loses.

On the other hand, Kit Kat recently made the news in Japan for deciding to change the wrapping of their famous snacks from plastic to paper. And, the other day, I did receive a paper straw with my ginger ale at a gourmet restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Good signs, no doubt. Now let’s get rid of the plastic sashimi grass.

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