Japan’s Recycling Pictures

Have you seen the recycling pictures on some of the products coming from Japan, such as plastic bottles and drink cans etc?

Some resemble the well-known mobius loop recycling symbol, while others look like a modification of the universal recycling logo. Japan's recycling picture 1 Japan's recycling picture 2

Japan’s system of recycling logos

Yes, Japan has its own system for recycling symbols, known as the Recycling Identification Marks (or risaikuru shikibetsu hyoji in Japanese).

Many of these recycling pictures or identification marks (see symbols below) were designed and used on packaging material (e.g. boxes, bottles, cans, etc), to help the Japanese sort out the different types of packaging materials used, so that they could place the materials in the correct recycling bins after unwrapping their consumer goods.

The development of these recycling pictures or identification marks arose with the introduction of several recycling related laws in Japan in the 1990s.

One of the laws is the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law (passed in June 1995 and came into full force in April 2000) that sought to reduce the amount of trash created in Japan, by promoting more effective (re)use of resources found in unwanted containers and packaging material. This effort to reduce trash through recycling container and packaging materials is significant, considering that these items make up about 60% of Japan’s household waste by volume, according to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). In turn, the basic principle behind this law is that every one has a role to play in recycling – consumers have the responsibility to sort out their waste (according to the specified categories), the municipalities have the responsibility to facilitate the collection of the sorted items, and the businesses have the responsibility to recycle and use whatever has been collected into making their new products.

Another law is the “Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources” (came into full force in April 2001). This law promotes integrated initiatives in line with the Reduce, Reuse and Recycle waste management principle, at various stages of products’ life cycles – including the design stage, the manufacturing stage, the disposal stage as well as the recycling stage (for reuse in new products). Specifically, to facilitate the disposal stage, manufacturers are required by this law to apply product identifications or place recycling markings (using the relevant recycling pictures) on packaging materials, so as to indicate the type of materials they are made from.

Japan’s recycling pictures

Under the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources, identification marks or recycling pictures (see diagram below, extracted from a METI brochure) are required for

  • steel and aluminum cans used for holding beverages and liquors,
  • plastic PET bottles used for beverages, liquors, and soy source,
  • plastic containers and packaging (recycling picture known as “Pla-mark”)
  • paper containers and packaging (recycling picture known as “paper-mark”)

Japan's recycling pictures I

Although this legislation does not require for the application of identification marks when it comes to beverage paper-packs (not using aluminum), as well as containers and packaging made from corrugated cardboard, the related industries have autonomously decided to adopt the following recycling pictures and apply the indication on their materials.

Japan's recycling pictures II

And if you see recycling pictures like the following on some Japanese products, it is because the product packaging is actually made up of packaging materials comprising of different materials.

Japan's integrated container I

The above recycling picture is actually used for a cup-noodle packaging, comprising of the cup (holding the noodles), the lid, an external film and a soup sauce parcel (see diagram below). These components of the packaging are made of different materials (i.e. paper and plastic) and are separable, and hence referred to as “integrated containers and packaging”. Each of the components is to be treated as an independent container and packaging, i.e. they may be placed in different recycling bins depending on the materials they are made from.

Japan's integrated container II

For components of packaging that cannot be easily separated from each other, for example, plastic packaging layered with aluminum, the group of inseparable components or “portions” is treated as a single container or packaging. The identification mark or recycling picture used for this composite packaging would be the symbol for the material that is heaviest amongst the components.

For instance, in the case of a container or packaging made of paper, aluminum and plastic, if the paper is the heaviest, the identification mark or recycling picture is the paper mark. Alternatively, a composite plastic container can have a recycling picture like the one you see below, with abbreviations for its components printed beneath the arrows, and the heaviest component underlined.

Japan's composite container

Other recycling laws in Japan

Besides the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law and the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources, there is also the Home Appliance Recycling Law (effective date from April 2001). Under this law, a system is being set up for the collection and recycling of home appliances. Retailers of the respective appliances are required to ensure the collection of the used appliances, while manufacturers of the respective appliances are required to ensure the recycling of the collected appliances. The cost of recycling is borne by consumers.

There is also the End-Of-Life Vehicle (ELV) Recycling Law (introduced in January 2005) that specifies the roles for vehicle owners, ELV-collecting businesses as well as car manufacturers and importers. This law seeks to promote the building of a recycling oriented car industry within Japan where waste is reduced and resources are used with care.

Believe it or not, there is also a Construction Material Recycling Act and a Food Recycling Law in Japan.

Japan’s recycling culture

Since we are on the topic of Japan’s recycling system, I thought I would share a little of what I read about their recycling culture.

Japan’s success with recycling is highly recognized worldwide.

A quick look at the “guidelines for foreign residents in Japan” provided by the Japan Information Network and even real estate agency MCK Partners gives a sense that the Japanese take the sorting of their garbage, and recycling, very seriously.

The specificity of legislation (mentioned above) to do with the identification of materials using specific recycling pictures, as well as recycling in the country, should already give you a hint.

The New York Times reports of instances in Yokohama (Japan) where community leaders and other volunteers actually patrol their “wards”, checking for cases of residents who fail to follow guidelines on garbage sorting and recycling. When such residents are found, the community leaders might leave reminder notes for these “deviant” residents to improve on their garbage handling practices. In extreme cases where the “deviant” residents simply refuse to correct their ways despite repeated advice, the community leaders may attempt (rather successfully at times) to evict the “deviant” residents out of the ward. That, is the severity of not sorting out your garbage in Yokohama, and possibly in many parts of Japan.

Amazingly, with the principle that everyone has a role to play in mind, and possibly lots of determination, political will power and community spirit, Japan has become one of the most systematic and successful countries when it comes to recycling of their waste. There is a lot that countries all over the world, including developed ones, have to learn from Japan.

Nonetheless, the recycling culture in Japan is not without criticism.

The number of categories that Japan residents need to sort their garbage into prior to disposal can range from 10 to 44. To handle even 10 categories when sorting your trash can be quite mind-boggling, least to say 44 categories. This effort by the Japanese to sort their trash into the specified categories definitely requires lots of determination. Though effective, it would likely be hard to replicate such efforts in many parts of the world.

Despite the recycling efforts, Japan still incinerates a large proportion of its trash (because of land scarcity, Japan does not rely very much on landfills).

As a result of the strict laws on trash disposal and recycling, it may sometimes cost Japan residents quite a bit to dispose of or recycle a household appliance, a furniture or a vehicle. This possibly raises their cost of living.

However, the greatest criticism is possibly that the Japan manufacturers are famous for making use of lots of attractive packaging material as part of their marketing strategy. The story of having to plough through many layers of plastic packaging to reach the single cookie or chocolate is frequently heard. Such examples may leave some wondering whether Japan is shooting itself in the foot sometimes when it comes to its resource conservation policies.

Read more about other recycling pictures that are used in other parts of the world:

Return from this page on Japan’s Recycling Pictures to page on Interesting Recycling Facts

Return from this page on Japan’s Recycling Pictures to All Recycling Facts Homepage

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