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.
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.
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.