The words ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘Zero Waste’ have been popping up a lot in the media recently. Between the worldwide climate protests, the climate summit, and the brave young activists who are speaking out, the discussion about how the choices we’re all making affect our future has been getting louder and louder.
I have been increasingly aware of all the waste I’m generating on a day-to-day basis and am constantly researching and reading about ways to go waste-free. Finally, Tokyo Survival Channel (TSC) challenged me to go one week completely Zero Waste and see if it’s even possible here in Japan.
What it means to be ‘waste-free’
Essentially, the Zero Waste movement aims to do exactly what the name implies: create a circular economy in which we generate no waste at all. In other words, a system in which we would buy nothing that can’t be either composted or recycled. To say that it’s not an easy thing to achieve would be an understatement!
Zero Waste will look different to every person. You have to decide for yourself whether something is wasteful or not. However, it doesn’t mean that you throw out everything plastic in your home to replace it with environmentally friendly alternatives. It means fully embracing the mantra, Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Repeat.
This process of gradually going Zero Waste could take a long time, depending on how much ‘stuff’ you have accumulated in your home. I have quite a lot of ‘stuff,’ and plan to use the things I have until they’re gone, but for this week I did some shopping for eco-friendly and package-free items.
Japan and Zero Waste
In some ways, Japan is a very eco-friendly country. In terms of energy, they’re doing particularly well. Wind, solar, and geothermal power are all being put to use here, and their garbage-sorting system is also incredibly efficient.
Both these things are essential components in the fight against climate change. As an island nation, they have to be, or they would literally sink under the weight of their own garbage! However, the sheer volume of packaging and single-use plastics that one encounters on a daily basis is truly staggering. This is one of the most significant sources of frustration for anyone in Japan who is trying to be less wasteful.
How people react to Zero Waste
I encountered a wide variety of reactions when I informed people of my project. Some were intimidated by the idea, and others were plain confused.
Local shopkeepers at the farmer’s market and the bakery seemed puzzled by my insistence that they put everything in the containers and bags I brought with me, but went along with it happily enough. I can’t say the same for the cashiers at grocery stores. Once, I went to buy a single avocado and told the cashier I didn’t want a bag. The cashier looked confused, then just put it in a smaller bag. I found this very frustrating.
Curse thee, flimsy plastic bag!
Getting ready for a week of Zero Waste
Finding plastic-free alternatives to the things I use every day wasn’t going to be easy. I managed to accomplish some of my shopping on Amazon. Sadly, this meant some products did come in plastic packaging, but as they were bulk items, I won’t have to buy them very often, if ever again. I call it a win. Among the items I purchased were the ingredients for some DIY projects, a steel safety razor, and fountain pens.
DIY supplies have arrived!
My search for package-free toiletries led me to the biggest LUSH in all of Asia. As it turns out, it’s right in the middle of Shinjuku! They’re very environmentally conscious there, and nearly all of their products either come without packaging or in packaging that can be recycled. It’s probably too expensive to use regularly, and the fragrances can be overwhelming for some, but for me this was a major treat!
Me in LUSH in front of a wall of bath bombs
But wait… what about groceries?
Buying food for the week was a daring proposition. Everything is wrapped in plastic—even carrots, bananas, and green peppers. After making a tour of four different grocery stores in my town, I determined that Maruetsu has the best variety of plastic-free produce options. In fact, I was surprised at how easily I was able to find the ingredients for my favorite meals.
In the end, I was a little overzealous and bought more than I needed, a definite Zero Waste no-no. A few things went bad before I could cook them, and I had to throw them out.
I started my Zero Waste week bright and early Monday morning. My new deodorant from LUSH smelled fantastic, but was a little rough on my skin. The toothpaste tabs that I bought to replace my toothpaste, on the other hand, were great fun! They look like little pills, but stick one in your mouth, bite down, and stick a wet toothbrush in there and it foams up like crazy!
Meal Planning: Bento it up!
As a teacher, I usually eat the lunches provided by my schools. Unfortunately, this nearly always comes with at least one or two items packaged in plastic, and I’m rarely able to finish everything on the tray. This week, however, I brought a bento. I was nearly late to work because I had to rearrange my morning routine to make it. Meal planning was definitely the way to go. If you make your lunches at the beginning of the week in bulk, that cuts out a HUGE amount of waste. Buying in bulk is usually cheaper, too.
Bento Meal Planning: Enchilada rice, boiled egg, and apple slices dusted with cinnamon
No more disposable pens for me
I spent my free time that morning journaling, which gave me an opportunity to use the fountain pens I bought to replace disposable ballpoint pens. They turned out to be amazing! I felt like an old-school writer penning the great American novel—though my handwriting definitely isn’t what anyone would call elegant.
The pen is definitely more elegant than the handwriting
Let’s get clean with some DIY zero waste toiletries
One of the ways to go waste-free (and something many people take for granted) is to make your own skincare items. I decided on a 2-in-1 recipe for body butter and shaving soap.
Here are the necessary items:
- ¼ cup of safflower oil (Benibana Foods Co.)
- ¾ cup of cocoa butter (Ueno Ohtsuya)
- 2 tablespoons of Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap
The directions seemed simple:
- Melt the oil in a double boiler, then freeze half the mixture.
- Whip the second half together with castile soap.
But it was a little bit tricky. After some trial and error, I finally managed it. I wound up with a tin full of very nice body butter and a small container of surprisingly foamy shaving soap!
The results of a successful DIY project
The shaving soap worked very well, though I felt a little like a teenager shaving for the first time with my new steel nothing-disposable-about-this razor. It’s a different shape than I’m used to and left behind quite a few nicks… I made a mental note to shave more carefully next time.
Replacing bottled shampoo and conditioner with BARS
This is another good opportunity to try some more waste-free products—eg: no packaging. I had purchased a solid shampoo bar and conditioner bar (pretty cool, huh?). I discovered that they worked well enough, but involved a lot more scrubbing than the liquid kind I usually buy.
They don’t look like much, but they smell delightful
Pro tip: A good alternative for people not ready for bars of shampoo and conditioner is to reuse the bottles you already have and refill them with liquid soap in recyclable packaging.
When I arrived at my elementary school on Tuesday, I learned that I had waited too long to contact the school nutritionist about cancelling lunch. Therefore, in order to not be wasteful, I decided to go ahead and eat school lunch and have my bento for dinner. I can’t say I was terribly sorry. It was a spaghetti day!
One thing I struggled with a lot during the week was cravings. I am highly addicted to sugar and junk food, and most of my favorite snacks come packaged in plastic. Today I was desperate for a waste-free sugar fix. I very nearly gave in and stopped for a snack after work, but I managed to resist. Instead, I invited a friend out to dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant, where they happen to have some delicious (and sweet) coconut naan.
Pro Tip: Bring containers with you when you go out to eat for any leftovers—that way you don’t have to waste any to-go containers or food—to eat later.
At this point, I had my routine down. I mastered meal planning, figured out how to use my Zero Waste toiletries, and enjoying playing with my fountain pens.
I discovered, much to my disappointment, that the one week I chose not to eat school lunch was the same week all my favorite menu items were served! Each day I sat there, staring at my little bento and inhaling the enticing scents of hot, delicious food.
Friday was my day to teach elementary school and I finally got to show off my bento to the students. As soon as I set down my lunchbox, the little third graders gathered around, full of curiosity.
“What’s in it?”
“Ooh! That looks delicious!”
“Did you make it yourself?”
THEY WERE FASCINATED.
Clean up, waste down. Getting some tools!
I used to rely heavily on disposable wet-wipes for cleaning, but I recently switched to using Japanese zoukin instead. They’re basically just rags, but I’ve found ways to put them to all kinds of uses. The same was true when I replaced my dish sponges with coconut husk scrubbers. They were a little rough on my hands to start with, but I found that they worked really well and lasted a lot longer than sponges. Zoukin and the coconut husk scrubbers can both easily be found at Daiso.
DIY cleaning solution
Cleaning tools were easy enough to find, but zero waste (and eco-friendly) cleaning solutions, it seemed, had to be MADE. Typical cleaners use chemicals that are potentially harmful to the environment and make the containers difficult to recycle. I found a recipe online for a floor cleaning solution. The ingredients were super complicated, so I thought I’d make a bulleted list. Wait for it…
That’s. It. But vinegar? When I finished, I’d either have perfectly sparkly floors or a living room that absolutely REEKED. Either way, that floor wasn’t going to scrub itself! I measured the ingredients and put them into a spray bottle.
Coconut scrubber, zoukin, and vinegar cleaning solution all ready to go
The floor ended up shiny and clean, and I still had plenty of the solution left to use later. The slight smell of vinegar disappeared within an hour. I’ll definitely be using this again.
The problem with making so much food ahead of time is you need a non-bulky way to store it. I decided to DIY yet again! This time I made beeswax wraps. These are very hip and popular right now, but quite expensive. They’re meant to replace cling wrap; the idea being that the heat from your hands molds the fabric into the perfect shape to fit over a bowl or around a piece of leftover food.
DIY Beeswax Wrap
To make the beeswax wrap, you need:
- Beeswax (pellets, cubes, or blocks that you have already grated)
- Pieces of fabric in sizes that are convenient for you to use
- Cookie sheet
- Oven or double boiler
- Melt the beeswax in a double boiler (good thing I practiced earlier this week!).
- Pour it over the fabric on a cookie sheet.
- If that fails, stick it in the oven on medium to high heat until it evens out
- When it’s melted, take it out of the oven.
- Use that fork to peel it off of the cookie sheet immediately.
- Wave it around to dry.
Going from Step 1 to Step 2, the wax started to cool the moment I removed it from the heat, and pouring it over the cloth did nothing but make a big old mess! I went to YouTube for help. There I found the suggestion to stick the whole thing in the oven, fabric, wax, and all. To my relief, it evened out in no time. You can also sprinkle the beeswax pellets directly onto the fabric on the cookie sheet and put that in the oven like Klaire does in the YouTube video and get the same beautiful result.
One of the great things about Zero Waste DIYs is that a lot of the ingredients overlap and are easy to buy in bulk. There are more recipes I want to try now, and I already have most of the ingredients.
At last, Sunday arrived—the final day of my challenge. To celebrate, I went out with a friend. We brought our reusable mugs to Starbucks and got coffee, which we drank while window-shopping in Shinjuku.
My Zero Waste ‘going out’ kit
Don’t buy bottled water—refill with MyMizu!
I always carry a refillable water bottle with me when I go out. But since I drink a lot of water, had to find a way to refill without using any plastic bottles. I found this great new Japanese app called My Mizu in English, which shows where you can find places to refill a water bottle in relation to where you are. Each one of these pins is either a water fountain or a local business that will refill your water bottle for you.
The app in action
What to do with the PET bottles I DO have
When I got home I did some work in my garden. I have several lovely herbs growing out there, along with some adorable PET bottle planters I got from the Hasegawa Sato Store, which was an excellent way to reuse some plastic bottles.
My cute little edamame kit!
Here’s how they work. The products involve a topper for plastic bottles that can be filled with sand and seeds for herbs, spices, tomatoes, edamame, strawberries, you name it. You fill any old plastic bottle with water, and the roots will extend down into the water in the bottle as the plant grows. Their website is currently only in Japanese, but that’s nothing a little Google Translate can’t handle! They even give you directions for how to best take care of your little plant-ling. I don’t think they’ll grow in time for the end of the challenge, but here’s what it looks like after a couple of days:
This TSC challenge almost got the best of me
I took stock of how I had done. While I didn’t achieve Zero Waste, I did come pretty darned close. I was unable to avoid the waste created by my dental floss and uneaten food. Food composting in Japan, I guess, was just not meant to be unless you have a big-enough garden, but apart from that, I generated almost no burnable and plastic waste. I significantly reduced the amount of trash I produced, and that, in and of itself, is a victory for the environment. I learned a lot and fully intend to continue using many of the tricks and recipes I found.
A week’s worth of plastic
Under the current circumstances, it’s probably impossible for anyone to comfortably go Zero Waste in Japan. Various food issues need to be addressed, and eco-friendly toiletries need to be made more widely available. The most important thing is to try and create less wasteful habits; to be conscious of what we’re buying, how it’s packaged, and whether we’re really going to use it. Give yourself some credit! Every little effort we make is one step closer to creating a cleaner and better environment for everyone else to live in. All that matters is that we try to make a difference.