packaging

Under Wraps.

packaging

The art of wrapping…and if it’s an art, it’s probably because the Japanese made it one. Usually when you buy things that come in a package like cookies, crackers and candy, they will come individually wrapped (cookies) or grouped together in small snack packages. It would be very helpful if you were assembling lunches or snacks for kids. It works well to keep things fresh and also (bug warning ewwww) to keep the cockroaches away. Yes, Tokyo is very hot and humid in the summer so they do suffer with cockroach infestations. Luckily we were on the second floor so we didn’t have many…at least we didn’t when I was there. Fingers crossed for the girls still braving the summer heat.

I have to say, things have become more eco-friendly, in terms of superfluous packaging, since I lived in Tokyo in 1991. I recall buying my daily treat at the bakery outside the station. One item only; a cookie, a cinnamon bun. My one item would be wrapped in waxed/tissue-like paper and secured with a sticker, then put in a small box (even if it was just a cookie), THEN put in a carrier bag. Most department stores followed a similar three-layer protocol. First your purchases would be wrapped in tissue–like with like so the packages would be symmetrical and tidy–and neatly fixed with tape or a sticker, then put in a paper or plastic bag THEN this bag would be placed inside a fancy carrier bag with a logo and handles. As I’ve mentioned before, those who brought their own bags or knapsacks to the grocery store were viewed as potential threats to the social order and often received their food nicely wrapped in plastic and paper to protect the inside of their fabric bags or knapsacks.

A lot has changed now. I didn’t buy too many bakery items but they seem to have it down to 2 layers of packaging: a cellophane bag closed with tape or a sticker, placed inside a paper or plastic bag–no more carrier bags unless you buy something big. The department stores, for the most part, still wrap everything in tissue or place items in a paper bag and then put them in a carrier bag. So they’ve got it down to two layers too. Some of the middle-tier department stores have even (gasp) gone to a one bag only system. Nicely taped closed with logo tape but still, only one bag. Some bags, Shibuya Loft comes to mind, even use plastic bags and not fancy carrier bags with logos and handles. They still bow when they present you with your purchases though.

My grocery store has a small rack at each cashier that holds laminated cards with a picture of a bag in a red circle with a line through it that you place in your basket if you have your own bag. You also get extra points and a discount if you bring your own bags. So times HAVE changed. However, they still bring out the plastic umbrella sleeves every time it rains, even in the most lowly of department and grocery stores. The idea of wrapping packages and gifts and concealing things that are less than aesthetically pleasing will likely be a hard habit to break for the Japanese.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and BURN

TrashTrash is complicated here. Burnables go out on Tuesday and Friday. Weird things that you wouldn’t really think of, are considered burnable. The agency leaves us helpful little signs so we know what’s what: food, old sandals, bento boxes, plastic bags, plastic bottles (yep) and used chopsticks. The recycling (separated by category) goes out on Wednesday morning: bottles and jars, hairspray aerosol cans,  magazines and newspapers and tin cans. Unburnable things smaller than 30 cm go out on the first and third Wednesday and include: broken bowls and cups (even if they’re glass), batteries, light bulbs and lighters. Not sure what happens items bigger than 30cm but I suspect they go out on the garbage day that we all used to look forward to when I lived here as a bright young thing in the 90s. I think this was the day that people left out GREAT stuff that was barely used that we would scavenge. We got a TV. Seriously. The remote was nicely taped to the top. Not a junker either…I don’t think the model they disposed of was even available in Canada yet. Housing is expensive so most people rent therefore they have a fair amount of disposable income so they buy the latest greatest stuff. But that’s another story. We also got a rice cooker, a new futon in the package, dishes, a table, a bike and a chair. I saw a bread maker on the street last Wednesday so I suspect that is when you get rid of big stuff. Maybe we’re not allowed to or maybe they just assume we don’t have anything that big.

The amount of packaging used is much less than it was in the 90s. Things used to be wrapped like crazy. For example, if I bought a bun from the bakery (one bun), it would be put on a small cardboard tray with a doily and a napkin, then into a small box, then into a carrier bag–sometimes with tissue paper. You could not sway them from this procedure and I even spoke Japanese then. When I moved into in the city (Gotanda, the armpit of Tokyo) there was another foreigner I would see at the supermarket who used to bring her own shopping bags (remember this was 1991) and the cashiers did not know what to make of her. They treated her carefully, like she was an unpredictable nut job that would potentially destroy the social order.

In terms of recycling and package, there have been improvements twenty-three years later. I’ve noticed that the packaging is less, I even get bonus points on my supermarket card if I bring my own bags! However, there is still an awful lot of garbage and some changes will be a long time coming: they still offer plastic umbrella bags at every store which you are expected to use when it rains.

Where, you may be wondering, do they actually BURN the trash? It would appear that there is an incinerator just down the street from us. In fact, I can see it now from where I sit. Though this is obviously an environmental faux pas, what choice do they have really? They probably don’t have room for landfills…. They could recycle the plastics and I’m not sure why they don’t; they could cut down on packaging; they could eat fewer packaged foods. To be fair to the Japanese, they do have an awful lot of people to contend with and they do have some time-honoured traditions that are VERY eco-friendly. The bento box, for example, used to be made of lacquerware (now mostly plastic) and is re-used every day. A large cloth called a furoshiki is used to wrap up your lunch or other items. Children are often given a cloth napkin in their fabric lunch bag. Kimono are handed down for generations. I have confidence the Japanese will come up with a solution.

This pile is of our ‘burnables’ since Friday. That’s for four people, one of whom left on Sunday. Not big eaters and the girls eat our at least one mean per day so I imagine for a family it would be a lot more. Note the lovely shot of the incinerator in the setting sun…they burn the garbage at night so as not to remind people….

Trash Incinerator