How Japan is using the circular economy to recycle plastics

Strong tradition of recycling and resource conservation rooted in ancient cultural beliefs and practices, and supported by government policies today, are supporting the transition to a circular plastics economy in Japan, write Naoki Tamaki and Naoki Wada.

Naoki Tamaki and Naoki Wada, 15 March 2023

Town residents sort their household waste at Kamikatsu waste recycling facility on July 2, 2020 in Kamikatsu, Japan. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

In Japan, it is common for individuals to wash their plastic products to remove any food residue before recycling them. For example, after consuming a beverage, the plastic bottle is usually separated into three parts – the cap, the film and the body – before recycling. Indeed, recycling plastic products in Japan is supported by the country's strong long-standing emphasis on resource conservation.

Limited natural resources required for the industrial sector has been a persistent issue in Japan for many years. Despite Japan's industrialization over 150 years ago, natural resources –such as energy and minerals – are still essential for the industrial sector yet, due to scarcity, Japan has relied on imports for nearly 90 per cent of its energy and almost all of its mineral needs.

But, despite these limitations, Japan has managed to achieve high economic growth through processing trade, becoming the world's second-largest GDP country between 1968 and 2010 while currently being ranked third. This was achieved not only through improvements in product technology but also by making manufacturing processes more efficient and by conserving the natural resources that the country has. Indeed, the promotion of recycling has been a top priority for the country's economic security.

Waste management in Japan

The national policy framework in Japan has undergone significant changes in recent decades. The rapid economic growth of the 1960s and 1980s resulted in a massive generation of waste that put tremendous pressure on the capacity of disposal sites, particularly in light of Japan's mountainous landscape, making it challenging for local authorities to establish new sites for disposal. The number of illegal dumping cases also increased, indicating that administration of waste management, which simply disposed of what was generated, had reached its limits. But, in the 1990s, the country shifted its focus from waste treatment to emissions reduction and recycling.

In fact, to address this issue, the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Law was revised in 1991 to add waste emissions reduction and recycling to its legal objectives. Meanwhile, in 2000, the legal framework for a circular society was formed by the Law for Establishing a Recycling-Oriented Society which established the principle of a waste hierarchy. Furthermore, in 2001 the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources required businesses to consider recyclability at the design and manufacturing stages as well as also use recycled materials. In addition, practical measures were taken through six product-based recycling laws including those related to packaging, automotives, construction, food and electronic and electrical equipment, based on the extended producer responsibility.

Regarding plastic recycling, in particular, Table 1 shows a comparison of recycling rates in Europe (EU27+3), Japan and the United States. Europe has a recycling rate of 34.6 per cent of collected waste plastics while there is a gap between domestic plastics demand and collected post-consumer plastic waste which is the waste that is collected after being used by the consumers such as single-use food containers, plastic cups, bottles, and other things. According to Plastics Europe, ‘The conclusions are currently speculative due to inadequate data,’ but it is pointed out that 8-15Mt of the gap is potentially generated as waste which could make the actual recycling rate between 22 to 27 per cent. In Japan, the recycling rates for plastic were 23.8 per cent and 24.4 per cent compared to plastic demand and collected post-consumer plastic waste respectively. (For reference, the recycling rate, including thermal recycling – which is the use of combustible packaging waste for the production of energy through direct incineration with or without other types of waste with recovery of the heat – is 85 per cent.)

Table 1: Comparison of plastics demand, collected post-consumer plastic waste and recycling among EU, US and Japan

Plastics demand Mt (a)Collected post-consumer plastic waste Mt (b)Recycling Mt (c)
(c/a, c/b)
EU 27+349.129.510.2

(20.1%, 34.6%)


(23.8%, 24.4%)


(8.4%, 8.7%)

Data sources:
EU 27+3: Plastics Europe (2021): Plastics - the Facts 2021
Japan: Plastic Waste Management Institute (2021): The Status of Plastic Production, disposal, recycling, treatment and disposal
US: EPA (2022): Plastics: Material-Specific Data, McKinsey & Company (2019): Accelerating plastic recovery in the United States

Towards a circular plastics economy

Last year, in April 2022, the Act on the Promotion of Resource Circulation for Plastics was enacted in Japan to further improve the circulation of plastics. This material-focused regulation aims to promote the circulation of plastic in the entire range of products. The legal system intends to cover the cradle-to-cradle supply chain by implementing measures at three main stages: the design stage, the retail and service stage and the disposal stage.

At the design stage, the new legal system determines the guidelines for the Design for the Environment (DfE) and promotes their widespread use in products by establishing a governmental certification system. Government procurement is also expected to contribute to this purpose.

At the retail and service stage, retailers and service providers, such as hotels and restaurants, are required to take action to reduce the use of plastics following the newly developed guideline. The aim is to reduce the use of single-use plastic products through several measures including stopping the distribution of single-use plastic products, using alternative material products and improving communication with customers to discourage their usage.

At the disposal stage, three mechanisms are designed to cover all plastic products for collection and recycling. For municipal waste, local authorities are required to make efforts to collect and recycle all plastic products while the government has adjusted the regulation on package recycling to enable efficient and integrated recycling of plastics.

For business sectors, two certification systems have been developed for businesses that collect and recycle their products sold to consumers as well as their own industrial waste. These systems grant them legal exceptions on regulations, including waste collection, to encourage efficient recycling. It is also expected to contribute to business sectors accelerating their collaboration across both horizontal and vertical supply chain partners which is generally said to be the key to achieving a circular economy.

Comparing waste sorting systems in Japan and Europe

Regarding waste sorting systems in Japan and Europe, a wide range of rubbish is generated from households. In around 80 per cent of local authorities in Japan, rubbish is separated into more than 10 types in the rubbish collection stations. Each type has a different collection day in a week. The maximum number of rubbish types for separate collection in Japan is 34 and detailed rules for separate collection exist – such as papers and cardboard to be tied up with rope, broken glass or ceramics to be wrapped with papers to prevent worker injury and waste to be put in the station only on the morning of the collection day to avoid scattering on the street by animals and prevent smells from spreading to the surrounding households. Some municipalities even collect and recycle diapers and the guidelines for the Recycling of Used Paper Diapers developed by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in 2020 is considered the world's first guidelines for diaper recycling.

Regarding plastic containers and packaging in Japan, all containers and packaging in which plastics consist of the largest portion are subject to collection. In the UK, most rigid plastics are subject to collection while other rigid plastic packaging and most flexible packaging are not. The challenges of flexible plastic packages are the high contamination of food and the variety of polymer types. In the recycling process, which consists of more than half of packaging recycling in Japan, collected plastics are usually sorted roughly by hand, mechanically sorted into different polymer types, shredded, cleaned, melted and granulated. During this process, plastics contaminated with food or non-recyclable materials, such as multi-layered or mixed with paper, are removed and directed to energy recovery.

To increase the recycling rate and reduce the ratio of energy recovery, reducing the number of polymer types are included in the DfE guideline and, of course, small efforts by consumers can play a significant role in increasing the recycling rate of plastics and reducing recycling costs.

Japan's tradition of resource conservation

Wangari Maathai, the first Kenyan woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in the environmental field, said she was inspired by the term ‘mottainai’ during her visit to Japan in 2005. Mottainai is an ancient Japanese term that emphasizes treating objects with respect. This concept can be viewed as a fourth R, ‘Respect’, to the three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle that are commonly associated with a resourceful society. The term mottainai has gained popularity globally particularly in the context of promoting sustainable consumption and waste reduction. Indeed, the term has been used in various campaigns and initiatives, including the Mottainai Grandma project, which aims to encourage people to make the most of the food they have.

Its roots can be seen in the Edo period between the 17th and 19th centuries when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world and relied on the domestic production of food, energy and other resources. There were repairers of all essential items and dealers in the renting of clothes and other household goods. Additionally, there were metal and ash recycling companies and even human waste was bought and sold as a valuable source of fertilizer. This was largely influenced by the ancient Japanese Shinto religion which believed that a deity resided in all things which formed the foundation of the spiritual culture that emphasized taking care of all things.

Japan's resource-conserving practices are not limited to just recycling though. For example, the concept of mottainai also extends to the efficient use of water. This has become increasingly important due to Japan's limited natural resources and aging infrastructure.

In recent years, the government has implemented various measures to promote resource conservation including the development of eco-friendly technologies and of energy-saving regulations. The role of government policies and regulations in promoting recycling and resource conservation in Japan has been crucial. For example, the country has strict waste separation and recycling laws and local municipalities are responsible for ensuring that households and businesses comply with these regulations. The government also offers subsidies and incentives to companies that engage in resource-conserving practices such as using renewable energy and implementing sustainable production methods.

Despite this, Japan's recycling and resource conservation practices have not been without challenges. In recent years, the country has faced a growing problem of plastic and other waste leading to calls for more sustainable packaging. Additionally, Japan’s aging population and shrinking workforce have made it increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional system of waste collection and sorting thereby highlighting the need for innovative solutions and new technologies.

Yet, the strong tradition of recycling and resource conservation in Japan, with roots in ancient cultural beliefs and practices and supported today by government policies and regulations, is pointing the way towards how a circular plastics economy can help address contemporary environmental challenges.