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How Japan’s First Water Refill App Can Reduce Plastic — and Why It Matters

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

Japan’s relationship with plastic is toxic. The country is the second highest plastic producer per capita worldwide, just behind the United States. The Japanese government has yet to endorse the Ocean Plastics Charter, which the European Union and most other G7 countries signed in June 2018 in Charlevoix, Canada. It has pledged to invest abroad, but has done little to address plastic waste at home. Although plastic waste is a global issue, countermeasures against it start locally and nationally. Given the Japanese government’s stagnant response to plastic waste— with the exception of the Plastic Smart campaign— relying on the public sector alone would not be able to adequately reduce plastic. The changes need to happen from the bottom-up, too, said MyMizu founder Robin Lewis, who also works as a disaster management expert and consultant for the World Bank based in Japan. He has a solution to the country’s plastic production and consumption: Japan’s first water refill app. He and his team launched MyMizu in September to encourage people to use their own bottles instead of buying PET bottles. If we have the right intentions, use the right resources and cultivate the right habits, plastic can be a thing of the past.

Robin Lewis, MyMizu Founder

Plastic became prevalent in Japan during its economic growth, which created new challenges. This growth caused a waste management crisis. Plastic bags replaced paper ones in the 1970s. “From the period of high economic growth to the 1990s, Japan became increasingly challenged with serious social issues associated with waste from households and business operations…,” said Keidanren, an economic organization also known as the Japan Business Federation. As a result of this crisis, various sectors— from governments to nonprofits— established the Waste Management and Public Cleansing Act; the Basic Act for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society, and the Act on the Promotion Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging. Ultimately, through initiatives, they said they were able to develop proper waste treatment with the method of the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Recycling does not justify continuous plastic production. Businesses have committed to recycling their products— but less so to eliminate plastic from their production in the first place. This is especially apparent among beverage companies. For example, Kirin Group announced a medium-term target to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 30% of 2015 levels by 2030. Morinaga Holdings, adopting Goals 12 and 14 of the Sustainable Development Goals in their commitment, has pledged to improve plastic recycling systems and raise awareness of the importance and discretion of recycling with its customers. While such commitments are commendable, recycling happens on the premise that there is something to recycle. To eliminate waste, eliminating production is necessary, which requires urgent and swift commitment, as well as creativity, from all stakeholders.

At the individual level, cultivating habits to reduce plastic waste begins with awareness. The climate strikes in September, for example, saw a record 7.6 million protesters. In Tokyo, around 2,800 protesters took to the streets, and 5,000 across Japan. These numbers are impressive given the fact that protests are rare in Japan; however, they were low compared with other cities, some of which had around 100,000 protesters. Awareness and movements to address plastic waste, and by extension, climate change, have been slow to gain traction in Japan.“A recent government survey showed that nearly 75 percent of Japanese people ages 18 to 29 expressed interest in climate change…” said Tatiana Schlossberg, then a climate reporter of The New York Times. While she acknowledged the impressive statistic compared with that of other countries, “it is a noticeable drop from the close to 90 percent interest stated by the same age group just a few years ago,” she said. The lack of interest may be contributing to the thoughtless and abundant consumption that leads companies and governments to lose their vigilance. But ignorance is not a solution.

An app may be able to solve plastic waste in Japan. Robin Lewis, a social entrepreneur who specializes in climate change and disaster management, brings his expertise to solve Japan’s excessive use of plastic. For over five years, Lewis has led humanitarian operations in Mozambique, Haiti, Nepal, and Vanuatu, during which he witnessed disasters and their consequences first-hand. In Japan, he has traveled over 600 km by foot along the disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region and collected garbage along the beach in Oita prefecture. Such experiences made Lewis keenly realize the challenges Japan faces in terms o f climate change, and especially plastic. In August of this year, he and his team launched MyMizu, an app that shows users where they can refill their water for free. (Mizu means water in Japanese.) Today, it has registered refill stations in over 8,000 locations across Japan. Users can also register a refill station if they find one, which the MyMizu team will then decide whether to approve. This app not only encourages people to find and use refill spots, but can also lead cafes and restaurants to install refill stations to draw customers, creating a win-win situation.

But Lewis is also aware that addressing plastic waste in Japan can be sensitive. Plastic excess in Japan is not always ill-intentioned, he said. Packaging is part of Japan’s gift-giving culture. Omotenashi— hospitality— encourages people to wrap gifts. “I once received a package of strawberries, which were wrapped in plastic, which was wrapped in more plastic,” he said. “But they are often signs that people care, so we need to find ways to show that we care without using plastic,” he said. Understanding the purpose of eliminating plastic may incentivize people to rethink how they show their hospitality and gratitude to others. The culture of gift-giving should fit the circumstances of our time, which may involve an understanding that gifts need not be tangible all the time. After all, the most precious gifts tend to be intangible.

Time is of the essence. Each year, 13 million tons of plastic reach the ocean. “At the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, there was an atmosphere of hope and optimism. Four years later, the progress has been disappointing,” Lewis said. Our progress, although noticeable in some ways, is also dismal. Globally, there were 18.8 million new disaster-related internal displacements recorded in 2017, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, reported by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). “Without urgent and concerted political action, it is projected that global resource extraction could grow to 190 billion tons by 2060,” warned the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. What we do at home directly and indirectly impact the ocean and the planet. One of the major advantages of MyMizu is that we can address plastic waste at an individual level— starting today. The process can be fun, according to Lewis. “Doing good has this misconception that it’s about making sacrifices. It’s not; it’s an opportunity to redesign our lifestyle and having fun with it,” he said, which explains the MyMizu slogan, “Less plastic, more fun!” Ahead of the curve, MyMizu turns awareness into action.

MyMizu team

Although eliminating plastic waste can be challenging, it is no pipe dream; if we have the right intentions, use the right resources and cultivate the right habits, it is possible. Resources such as MyMizu provide opportunities for people to reassess their lifestyle, which can create a domino effect, leading companies and the government to cut back on their waste. With over 8,000 refill spots across Japan, the country may find its silver lining in MyMizu, an app that is free, accessible, and sustainable. And MyMizu makes the process of reducing— and eventually eliminating— plastic fun and meaningful. As Lewis said, “We’re borrowing this planet from our children.”

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