The word “Mottainai” in Japanese literally translates to “it is a shame to waste.” It stems from Buddhist philosophy on living minimally and appreciating nature’s gifts. The practice has been in place for generations.
Japan is often heralded as having one of the most sophisticated recycling systems in the world, with detailed separation of everything from radios to cat litter. But as UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Anatomy of Action campaign demonstrates, to live sustainably means not only to recycle but make green consumer choices every day. Considering that Japan generates around 32 kg per capita plastic waste every year, second only to the United States, the choices of plastic products have been damaging to the country’s environmental record.
“We seem to have lost our way a bit,” says No Plastic Japan founder Mona Neuhass, who noticed the proliferation of single-use plastics when she first relocated back to Tokyo.
“I was at a café and the waiter served me water in a plastic cup as a side to my coffee,” she said. “I thought ‘this is ridiculous! For a few millilitres of water, they are using a new cup every time.’”
Neuhass wrote to the café about changing their policy but didn’t stop there. Inspired by other eco Japanese youth movements, like the operation to make shopping hub Cat street in Tokyo waste free, she decided to launch No Plastic Japan—a company that offers alternatives to single-use plastic straws.
“There are ways to avoid single-use plastics in everyday life,” the 27-year-old founder said. “It’s about making a conscious effort to pick the loose vegetables in the supermarket or refuse the plastic cutlery that comes with your takeaway.”
Through beautifully curated posts on Instagram, No Plastic Japan’s not only managed to create a successful stainless-steel straw business but has also birthed an online community which shares ideas and best practices on sustainable living.
“I think there’s definitely a movement now where younger people understand that there’s a problem,” she said.
This is only one example in one country. There are inspiring examples to be found in every corner of the globe.
UNEP’s Anatomy of Action campaign encourages three simple actions when purchasing “stuff”. First, consider what you need and buy products that will last longer, be used multiple times, and can be recycled; two, stay away from fast fashion that mass produces at the cost of environmental and human justice, and three, refuse everyday products that cannot be reused.