Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 18 million tons in 2010, according to the Ministry of Agriculture
When global climate change awareness started gaining traction in the 1990s, Japan was quick to put recycling on the national agenda. Since then, its recovery and waste management policies have included innovative food waste solutions focused on repurposing would-be waste for animal feed and fertilizer.
The Food Waste Recycling Law (English summary here), passed in 2001, called for the development of national food loss reduction targets and standards for businesses as well as recycling promotion strategies. Six years later, the law was given more teeth: it assigned recycling volume targets by food industry sector, required businesses to report their waste quantity and their recycling efforts each year, and encouraged collaboration between the food and recycling industries. These measures spawned Recycling Business Plans, aka “recycling loops,” to circulate resources. For instance, a retailer might pass its waste to a business that converts it into fertilizer or animal feed, which is then used to produce foods that the retailer purchases to sell. Much organic waste is also diverted to biofuel production.
Thanks primarily to the recycling law, Japan recycled 82% of its food waste in 2010. Nevertheless, food constituted 25-30% of municipal solid waste in that same year. A leading culprit for these disappointing figures is the “one-third rule” that many companies follow. Looking at a product from its manufacture to its best-by date, manufacturers must deliver the food to retailers within the first third of its lifespan, and it cannot be sold after the second third. So, a can of nuts manufactured in January 2015 with a best-by date of January 2017 a) has to be delivered to retailers by August 2015 and b) has to be purchased by April 2016 – otherwise, it’s thrown out. The annual values of food returns to wholesalers and to manufacturers based on date-expiration sum to more than ¥155 billion. In a few exemplary cases (16%), though, products past the sell-by period are sold at discounted prices, rather than trashed. Fortunately, Japan has been reexamining the unwritten “rule” over the last couple of years and extending shelf-life labels of shelf-stable foods such as canned products, bottled water, and packaged rice cakes.
Aesthetic perfectionism is another cause of waste that Japan is just starting to address. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that food rejected for purely visual reasons accounts for roughly one-third of the country’s annual waste. To call attention to this issue, the company a-dot has launched four distinct restaurants across Tokyo that specialize in using foods that are deemed “unsellable” by retail aesthetic standards. The project, called Mottainai (“wasteful”) Action, not only saves food from being tossed but also rewards producers and market vendors for their products (otherwise, they would have earned no profit for unsold food).
Finally, there is the Foodloss Challenge Project, launched in 2012 to analyze how and why food waste occurs and strategize what can be done about it. The project began with studies that examined food waste management practices at all levels of the food supply chain. Participants in the research (farmers, retailers, manufacturers, restauranteurs, chefs, consumers, etc.) not only learned about the economic inefficiency and ecological harms of waste but also brainstormed ways to raise public awareness and promote new practices to cut down on waste. The campaign then hosted a “salvage party” on household waste reduction tips in which consumers brought leftovers from their homes for on-site chefs to improvise into new dishes. Additionally, the project has launched extracurricular programs to teach children about waste as well as a sticker for retailers to affix to products approaching their expiration date to encourage customers to buy them sooner. Meanwhile, nonprofit food banks have become increasingly prevalent, redistributing unwanted consumer-, farmer-, and company-donated food items to people in need.
Although Japan still has a lot of work to do in the food waste prevention department, the country’s steps to improve waste management are laudable. Japan is worth keeping an eye on as it develops more mechanisms to deal with waste.
Keep pushing forward, Japan! 食品廃棄物にノーと言います.
Federica Marra (Food Tank) – Food Waste in Japan: How Eco-towns and Recycling Loops are Encouraging Self-Sufficiency
Kaori Iwashita and Junko Edahiro (Japan for Sustainability Newsletter) – The Foodloss Challenge Project, a Co-created Project on Food Loss and Waste
OECD – Preventing Food Waste: Case Studies of Japan and the United Kingdom