Japanese business focuses on the world’s plastic problem

We can expect an awful lot of rubbish when the world’s leaders descend on Osaka at the end of this month.

Thousands of diplomats, journalists and officials will gather alongside VIPs, including China’s president Xi Jinping and America’s leader Donald Trump.

The crowds will guzzle gallons of bottled water and munch their way through tons of convenience food, which typically in Japan, comes wrapped in many layers of plastic. In fact, Japan is second only to the US in the amount of plastic packaging used per person.

Toss it out

Faced with such a mountain of waste, some countries might just toss the mess into a landfill sight and try to forget about it.

But clean and tidy Japan offers a much smarter solution: only 1.2% of Japanese waste goes to landfill these days, 20 percent is recycled and much of the rest is burned in powerful incinerators.

Nevertheless, plastic does cause problems. For example, the sacred deer which tourists encounter in the ancient city of Nara are being poisoned by plastic bags. And inevitably, some plastic waste seeps into the oceans, threatening the ecosystem upon which Japan’s fishing industry depends.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated clearly that plastic waste is a crucial issue at the G20 summit. “As the chair of the meeting, we will exercise leadership to solve the matter,” he said.

Raging fire

So what can Japan do to help? One option is to offer other countries the powerful furnaces which it uses to burn waste at temperatures of up to 850 degrees.

I learn from the Washington Post that around 58 percent of Japan’s discarded plastic ends up being sent for what is called “thermal recycling” – incinerated to produce heat and electricity.

It’s a better response than abandoning the rubbish on stinking trash heaps, like those which fester in the slums of big cities in Pakistan and the Philippines.

But burning waste is not ideal, as it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Business solution

Japanese businesses which can offer better ways to tackle the problem have the enthusiastic support of national and local government.

They also have the backing of thoughtful citizens who meticulously separate their household waste into piles of different materials and don’t wish to see it all hurled into the fire.

These social factors create the perfect environment to invest in finding a more sustainable solution.

Sogo shosha

The incinerators are expensive to install and maintain. However, Japanese exporters, especially the big sogo shosha trading companies, are skilled at securing foreign customers.

Government agencies provide the export guarantees which smooth their overseas business.

It’s a pattern which works well in developing countries, where Japanese equipment such as cooling fans find a thriving customer base.

However, as the G20 conference will acknowledge, the scale of the problem is enormous. And while the world keeps producing millions of tons of single use plastic which is wasteful abandoned, the solutions offer by Japan or anyone else do little more than scratch the surface.