Thursday, 24 January 2019

Overflowing with Plastic Waste: Recycling, Landfill, and Incineration in Japan

Local Garbage Incineration Plant
The World Economic Forum (WEF=世界経済フォーラム) is currently holding its annual meeting as I write and Abe gave a speech on Wednesday pushing for an international agreement on the reduction of plastic waste following up on his November 15th ASEAN+3 Marine Plastics Debris Cooperative Action Initiative. The government's sudden enthusiasm to do something about plastic waste is less down to a new found environmental awareness and more due to China's ban on importing plastic waste from January 2018. This left Japan in a bind since China has previously accepted most of the 1.5 million tons of plastic waste exported in previous years. The situation is even more urgent since Japan ranks second internationally after America in terms of the colume of single-use plastic containers discarded.

While Japan is well known for its mottainai ("what a waste!") green mindset, in reality environmental awareness is weak and recycling of household garbage is low (around 20% in 2016, less than half that in the UK). In terms of plastic, while 84% of all plastic waster is ostensibly recycled, the majority of this is actually burned in a process that is rather dishonestly called "thermal recycling." On the ground, some supermarkets do now give a discount for bringing your own shopping bag (my local gives ¥2 off!) this is still not widespread and the ubiquitous convenience stores, which are hugely popular, churn out a mountain of plastic packaging seemingly without any attempt to deal with the waste. Moreover, the movement to reduce one-use items like plastic straws which has swept many Western countries has not really gained traction in Japan, with restaurant operator Skylark the first (and only?) Japanese business to officially announce it will stop using them (unless customer's request them!). The government did announce in a draft strategy at the end of last year a proposal to introduce a mandatory charge for plastic bags (レジ袋有料義務化) but like much else in Japan it remains under discussion.

In everyday life, Japan has long been known for its meticulous garbage separation rules. Certainly it started this a lot earlier then the UK; I remember my wife being shocked that almost all rubbish was throw in the same bin when visiting England in the 1990s! In my local area rubbish is collected every weekday: Monday is recycle day (cans, bottles, clean plastic, batteries etc), Tuesday and Friday are for burnables (moeru gomi =燃えるごみ), Wednesday is for non-burnable (moenai gomi=燃えないごみ including dirty plastic containers), and Thursday is for paper and cardboard (as well as fabric). For over-sized rubbish (known as sodai gomi =粗大ごみ)it is necessary to buy a special sticker and then ring to arrange a pick up date. Kodaira City has a detailed website explaining how to throw out rubbish correctly (gomi no dashikata =ごみの出し方). Interestingly, non-Japanese struggling to throw out garbage in the correct way has become a source of cultural friction in some neighbourhoods and is even sometimes cited as a reason against more migration! As a result most municipalities now have brochures in various languages (English here and here).

What of the future? Many local authorities, especially in Tokyo, are beginning to take the issue more seriously. My locality will make it compulsory to throw out rubbish in designated coloured bags, costing from ¥100 for 10, from April as a way to reduce household waste (pictured). Nevertheless, space for landfill, especially in the growing Tokyo metropolis, is becoming increasingly scarce; it is said, it will run out altogether in another 50 years. This article describes the artificial island facing central Tokyo packed with citizens' waste in a long standing tradition of "filling in the sea with trash." However, only about one-eighth of rubbish ends up in such landfills; much of the rest is burned at extremely high temperatures (the board outside the incineration plant pictured above gives a temperature of 958℃ in the shot below). Such high temperatures supposedly limit the amount of dangerous dioxins being released into the atmosphere via the smokestack. Unfortunately, it is still not uncommon to see (and smell) householders and small-lot farmers burning rubbish on their property, seemingly oblivious of the noxious fumes that are being released.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Umami, Dashi, and the Hardest Food in the World

Visit any Japanese supermarket and you'll find a whole section selling ready made dashi, Japanese soup/broth stock that brings out the best flavours of Japanese food (washoku =和食). The stock is basically hot water infused with the savoury "umami" flavour of ingredients such as fish (especially dried bonito known as katsuobushi) and seaweed (especially kombu or kelp). Umami itself is a distinct fifth basic taste (after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) identified and named by a Japanese chemist over a hundred years ago (umai in Japanese means delicious). Although umami was not universally recognised until 1985, the taste is by no means limited to Japanese palates, and explains the popularity of anything from ketchup on burgers to Parmesan cheese on tomato sauce with mushrooms!

Katsuobushi itself is a Japanese staple, and is often first encountered by non-Japanese sprinkled over the top of the Japanese savoury pancake known as okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). The way the wafer thin bonito -actually skipjack tuna- flakes dance and writhe around on top of the hot okonomiyaki is quite enchanting (see video at bottom). Katsuobushi flakes are also a common topping on rice and tofu. Dashi is for the most part invisible though and the vegetarian assuming a bowl of Japanese miso soup or noodles is safe should most definitely think again! Certainly, being a vegetarian today in Japan (let alone a vegan) is incredibly difficult, rather surprising given that Buddhist culture made eating meat largely a social taboo that was enforced by a long ban or prohibition on the killing and eating of meat up until Westernisation in the second half of the 19th century (see here).

Katsuobushi can also be bought in block form which is like a brick; indeed, katsuobushi is known as the world's hardest food (see here for a great video on how it's made). If you do buy it in block form you will need to shave it yourself which requires a specialised grater. As the picture shows, these can cost anything from ¥10,000 to ¥30,000 (£70~£210!).

Japan is experiencing something of a dashi boom at the moment, with soup bars and other specialist shops such as Dashiplus in Akasaka gaining a lot of attention as healthy eating choices. One place I personally would recommend is the Nihonbashi Dashi Bar (日本橋だし場) where you can choose to eat in or take out from a menu that includes everything from cheap and simple dashi broth, miso soup, and katsubushi meshi (cooked rice) to crispy dashi (だしおこげ), oden, and the baked snack-like nureokake (ぬれおかけ) - not to mention some wonderful soups and broths on the lunch menu. Perfect for a rather chilly Tokyo which enjoyed its first flurry of snow (hatsu-yuki =初雪) at the weekend!