How the Japanese Packaging Industry is Stepping Up Its Game

Japanese packaging in supermarkets

Good packaging is an important part of any product, and Japanese packaging takes care to balance both form and function. Items are wrapped and packaged in a way that keeps them safe and intact, while making it easy for the customer to enjoy their purchase without mess or fuss. But while this can make for a very satisfying customer experience, it also leads to a lot of packaging waste.

Food products, for example, are often individually wrapped in order to keep them clean and fresh, and to make them easy to carry around. In grocery stores, even products like vegetables are frequently wrapped in plastic. When checking out, items are double- or triple-bagged to ensure everything is protected and hot items are separated from cold ones. Takeout meals may come with multiple packets of sauces and ingredients to keep everything separate until it’s time to eat. Japanese packaging may not always be efficient, but it does its job very well.

The packaging industry is a multi-billion dollar market and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 6% between 2019 and 2023. Asia-Pacific is a key player in this market, and will account for over 40% of the growth during this period. With so much packaging being manufactured and consumed, countries and corporations alike are becoming increasingly focused on sustainability and waste reduction.

How does packaging affect the environment?

Concerns about the environment are mounting and nations around the world are taking steps to reduce waste, including the Japanese government. As a country, Japan is the second-largest producer of plastic waste per capita, behind only the US. The two countries were the only G7 members who declined to sign the Ocean Plastics Charter in 2018, a commitment to make all plastics recyclable and significantly reduce consumption of single-use plastics. Japan’s environment ministry has instead created a strategy to reduce disposable plastic waste by 25% by 2030, and is introducing measures to help reach this goal.

The move to cut down on plastic in Japan is also motivated by more immediate concerns. In order to improve its own environment, China banned most foreign plastic waste imports in 2017. The country had previously been a major destination for garbage from other nations, including Japan, who then had to find other places to send that garbage or come up with new disposal solutions. Those other places are Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, which are not as well equipped to deal with the waste. Because of this, more garbage has ended up in the oceans instead.

At the G20 summit in Japan this past June, the nations agreed on measures to study and address this issue of marine waste. While some have criticized these measures for not having specific numerical targets, there is still value in publicly acknowledging the issue and committing to take action on it.

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What is Japan doing to reduce packaging waste?

The Japanese government recently introduced several policies to address the packaging waste problem. Shinzō Abe, the country’s prime minister, has called for improvements in trash collection and recycling in order to reduce the amount of plastics that end up in the sea. The country will also require retailers to start charging customers for plastic shopping bags starting in July this year. All stores – aside from some service sector businesses – are required to charge a minimum of 1 yen per bag. Biodegradable bags are exempt from this rule, as are thin plastic bags used for produce and other perishable foods. While cutting down on plastic bags won’t be enough to solve the marine waste issue, with a reported 30 billion plastic bags currently being used per year in the country the initiative should at least make a start on the matter.

How are corporations meeting the call for sustainable products?

The government isn’t the only one implementing sustainability practices. Japanese companies and corporations that export to Japan are also working to reduce the amount of plastic packaging waste they create and increase the amount of paper and cardboard used. Some retailers and individual cities have already been reducing or eliminating their use of plastic bags. Retailer Aeon had already been charging for plastic bags in over half of its locations, with plans to expand the practice to the majority of its stores by February. 7-Eleven pledged to stop using plastic bags altogether by 2030. And the rural town of Kamikatsu currently recycles 80% of its total waste, having set a goal in 2003 to reach zero waste by 2020.

Manufacturers are also changing their practices to become more environmentally friendly. Chemicals company Kaneka announced last year that it planned to invest 10 billion yen in production capacity for biodegradable plastics, increasing it from 1,000 to 100,000 tons per year. Demand for these plastics has been rising in recent years due to the European ban on non-biodegradable plastics less than 50 microns in thickness, and Japanese packaging changes are now contributing to that demand as well.

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Nippon Paper has been investing in advanced material for several years, selling “paper-based barrier materials” overseas in order to compensate for falling demand for newspaper and other products. In recent years, interest in paper-based materials to replace plastics has been rising as the Japanese packaging industry becomes more environmentally conscious and vendors look for paper versions of products such as straws, bags, and food containers.

The company is now looking to sell paper packaging for household detergents, shampoo, and soap. This has been a difficult product to develop due to the challenge of creating containers that stand up to liquid products, but the market for this type of item is worth billions of yen, and Nippon Paper wants to capture a strong share of it. It recently created a product called Spops containers, made to replace refillable plastic shampoo pouches used in dispensers. Spops containers are mostly cardboard, but do not get soggy when in contact with liquid.

Other manufacturers are also adjusting their facilities to make room for more fiber-based packaging solutions to replace plastic in Japan. Paper containers are becoming increasingly common in Japanese packaging, and other innovative products are being researched and developed, from paper cutlery to bottles made from wood fibers. People are hard at work developing paper solutions that can resist water and heat, a significant hurdle for the market. Paper products are also more expensive to produce than plastic in many cases, and manufacturers are still looking for ways to decrease these costs.

Food manufacturers are also looking for ways to produce less packaging waste. At the start of last year, Nestlé announced its commitment to use 100% recyclable packaging for all of its candy by 2025. As part of this initiative, its Japan branch recently introduced new paper packaging for its KitKat products. In order to make this packaging more appealing to consumers, the design includes instructions on how to fold it into an origami crane. KitKat has begun rolling out this Japanese packaging for a select number of flavors, and will be expanding it to more of its products in the coming months.

Japan – along with the rest of the world – has an uphill battle to reduce waste and make packaging more environmentally friendly. The Japanese government has received criticism for not implementing severe enough strategies and for lagging behind other natures in terms of its sustainability measures. On the other hand, forward momentum is a good thing, and it remains to be seen what other strategies will be put in place by both the government and by individual companies. There is real innovation in the works, and Japanese packaging is nothing if not creative. The coming years will see new biodegradable plastics and paper products doing things we never thought paper was capable of.

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