Is That Recycling Worth the Effort?


Riku Yokoyama
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

Should children bring home the milk cartons from their school lunch?

Around February of this year, I received a letter regarding the recycling of milk cartons from the elementary school my child attend in Kiyose City, Tokyo. According to the letter, empty cartons would no longer be collected by milk suppliers for school lunches in Tokyo from the next school year. In response, the school decided to provide a plastic bag with a zipper so that children can take the carton home for recycling. The school defined detailed procedures as follows: After drinking milk for lunch, children put the carton in the plastic bag, take it home, wash it, and put it in the recycling bin. Also, the plastic bag should be washed and brought to school every day.

Recycling is important. This belief is shared by many people. Even so, I find the contents of the letter to be somewhat unreasonable. "Do they make us do this at home every day? We don't have that much free time."--As a single parent, this was my honest impression. I also felt a sense of anxiety. My child drinks milk for lunch around noon and come home from after-school day care at around 6 PM. In the meantime, what if the milk from the carton leaks out of the plastic bag? To begin with, carrying around a bag containing a milk carton for six hours is unsanitary, especially during humid rainy season and summer. I don't want to wash such a dirty plastic bag in my kitchen. Even if I were to wash it daily, is it truly hygienic to use the same plastic bag every day? My child also expressed doubts after reading the letter: "If I use a plastic bag that is bad for the environment, I'm not really helping to recycle, am I?"

Consideration of recycling from the perspective of policy studies

Recycling is one type of environmental policies. When considering an environmental policy, we must use an interdisciplinary approach from a variety of disciplines, including economics, law, engineering, sociology, and ethics, which is my field of expertise. In that sense, recycling is an issue suitable for consideration by the Faculty of Policy Studies to which I belong. In this article, I will discuss the issue of milk cartons at elementary school from the perspective of policy studies, that is, from a diversified viewpoint.

First of all, a certain dilemma is presented by my anxiety about hygiene, and by my child's question of whether using plastic bags truly contributes to recycling. If hygiene is a priority, the plastic bag needs to be replaced frequently. However, increasing the number of plastic bags that have a high environmental load will negate the very act of recycling. Then, if recycling is a priority, the number of plastic bags used must be reduced. In other words, in order to achieve both hygienic safety and recycling, it is necessary to calculate how many plastic bags should be used on a monthly average and household average.

However, working out this number is no easy task. The recycling of milk cartons results in further environmental load; specifically, washing the cartons at home requires water and removing polyethylene laminated on the cartons at recycling plants requires mechanical fuel (fossil fuel). This environmental load must also be included in the calculation. Furthermore, the cartons may simply be thrown away at home without washing by some parents who, like myself, find washing the cartons to be troublesome. Honestly, I might throw away the plastic bag with the milk carton still inside when I am busy with work. Accordingly, we must also calculate the number of households that will actually cooperate in recycling.

Concept of extended producer responsibility

However, are such calculations really possible? It would be difficult to find accurate numbers. When asked by the school, "Do you throw away the carton without washing it?" few parents will honestly answer "Yes". Then, should we argue education on environmental ethics and recycling is necessary especially because such parents exist? The answer is no.

Rather, it is time to consider the limits of recycling that is the personal responsibility of the individual. Japanese people wash plastic bottles and cartons every day, carefully read the local government's overly-detailed instructions on how to dispose of garbage, and work hard to separate our garbage. Indeed, the detail of garbage separation in Japan (depending on the local government) is unprecedented throughout the world. However, the results are surprisingly poor. The garbage recycling rate in Japan is 20%, which is the lowest among the so-called developed nations.(Note 1)

Germany, an environmentally advanced nation, has a recycling rate of 67% (49% even when excluding the recycling of compost waste). However, German people do not wash plastic bottles and cartons at their homes. Similarly, there is no need to wash plastic and metal containers and packaging. Furthermore, all of these materials can be thrown into the same garbage bag and are collected free of charge. One reason is that disposing of all materials in one location reduces inefficiencies and lowers cost when compared to having individuals wash and separate the materials. Even more importantly, the main responsibility for recycling (including washing and separating) in Germany is assigned to corporations (producers), not individuals (consumers). Corporations pay for the cost of recycling. Of course, this cost is added to prices of products. Nevertheless, there are great advantages to this method. Specifically, having the producing corporation take responsibility from the production of products (entrance) to the disposal of products (exit) makes it possible to clarify the entire cost from production to disposal. Instead of thinking about how to deal with garbage that has been thrown away at the "exit," corporations give thought at the "entrance" on how to design, produce, and sell products in a way that reduces the generation of garbage. This concept is called extended producer responsibility, and it is a common policy in environmentally advanced nations such as EU countries.

Considering issues at the "entrance" will eliminate problems such as excessive packaging, something for which Japan is frequently criticized. Instead of using wasteful packaging and recycling such packaging at a later date, we would plan to reduce the use of packaging from the very start, or replace that packaging with materials other than plastic, which has a high environmental load. Moreover, some corporations might want to produce a container that can be washed and used repeatedly, rather than being used once and discarded. In this way, when considering matters from the "entrance," it is clear that we must begin by working to reduce, replace, and reuse. Indeed, recycling is the last measure to be taken at the "exit." For some reason, Japan gives priority to recycling and focused on "recycling education". However, recycling is not enough. Even Germany is struggling to reach a recycling rate of 60%.

Incidentally, even Japan has adopted the Act on the Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging, a part of which includes the concept of extended producer responsibility. However, the Act imposes a recycling obligation on corporations only in the actual process of re-merchandising waste. It is the responsibility of the individual consumer to clean, separate, and dispose of garbage, and the responsibility of the local government to separate and collect garbage. Furthermore, materials such as paper cartons, cardboard, and aluminum and steel cans are excluded from the re-merchandising obligation of corporations.

If there is no obligation, corporations will not collect garbage unless it is profitable to do so--this is evident in the aforementioned example of milk cartons in school lunches. However, it is unfeasible to place further burdens on school teachers. Therefore, Japan has leaned toward the easy response of having households undergo recycling education. Nevertheless, pushing such responsibility on households and individuals makes it impossible to visualize the cost of recycling. We cannot even be sure that recycling is actually being performed.

Environmental ethics and individual ethics

In terms of costs, the burden on parents who wash their milk cartons and plastic bags every day is not free. Indeed, it is a heavy burden on single parents like myself and on dual-income families. Some parents may not be at home in the evening due to working the nightshift. There are even some households without parents. Although Japanese television still presents the typical Japanese family as consisting of a father who works outside and a mother who stays home to handle housework and childrearing, real-life homes are diversifying rapidly. As demonstrated by the existence of the field of environmental ethics, the environment and ecology are major themes for ethics. Even so, these fields should not be advanced at the expense of individuals or families. One of the challenges of ethics is to achieve balance with the environment and society while also giving consideration to individual rights and diversity. What will happen if we push the attitude that "recycling is virtuous and good for the environment," yet there are households which face difficulties in recycling on a daily basis? How do the children of such families feel while at school? We must remember that ethics and morality sometimes manifest as violence against the weak.

Legal compliance is essential even for recycling

The letter distributed by my child's elementary school also states the following: "According to the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act, empty cartons are handled based on the concept that responsibility must be taken for proper processing of waste generated through business activities." Does this mean that households must engage in recycling? Although this sentence can be interpreted as such, that is actually not the case. The question is who is responsible for proper processing. The letter does not clearly define the subject who is responsible for said processing. Although the letter purports to be an excerpt of Article 3-1 of the Act, the actual text of the Act clearly defines "businesses" as the subject. In other words, since milk cartons for school lunches are not household waste but business waste, disposal of those cartons is not the responsibility of households; rather, it is the responsibility of the elementary school which is the business (or the responsibility of the mayor who established the school).(Note 2) Regardless of the importance of recycling, we must comply with the law. Partly due to this contradiction with the Act, parents and citizens have also started a signature campaign in opposition to this milk carton recycling plan. Despite having gone to the trouble of quoting the text of the Act (after removing the subject) in the letter, the Kiyose City Board of Education, which created the letter that was distributed in the elementary school, admitted that the recycling plan violated the text of the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act and withdrew the plan. This marked the end of this incident.(Note 3)

Recycling is important. However, in order to achieve a singular recycling policy, we must take a multifaceted perspective that considers various issues. Moving forward, we must incorporate ideas based on comprehensive policies into recycling education.

(Note 1) According to the database for the OECD Environment Statistics (referred to 2017 data for Municipal Waste) https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/data/oecd-environment-statistics/municipal-waste_data-00601-en
(Note 2) Since the aforementioned Act on the Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging does not apply to business waste, individuals have no obligations regarding discharge.
(Note 3) Details of the case are provided in the following article: "Is It Illegal to Take Home School Lunch Milk Cartons for Recycling? Program Abandoned in Kiyose, Tokyo Per Orders of the City Board of Education," The Mainichi Newspapers Online Edition; March 2, 2020 https://mainichi.jp/articles/20200302/k00/00m/040/314000c
Riku Yokoyama
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University

Riku Yokoyama was born in Tokyo in 1983. He graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences II, Waseda University in 2008.
In 2011, he completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School for Language and Society, Hitotsubashi University.
In 2018, he completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University. He holds a PhD in sociology.
He held positions such as Assistant at the University of Freiburg (Germany) and Researcher at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science before assuming his current position at Chuo University in 2019.

His current research themes include building an integrated explanatory model of applied ethics (bioethics, animal ethics, and environmental ethics) from the perspective of philosophical anthropology, and philosophical analysis of the role and potential of emotions in social systems.

His written works include Der Begriff der Person in systematischer wie historischer Perspektive (co-authored in German, mentis-Verlag Publishing, 2020), Life Ethics as Liberal Arts (co-authored, Maruzen Publishing, 2016) and more. His translations include Bioethik zwischen Natur und Interesse (written by Birnbacher, co-translated, Hosei University Press, 2018) and more.