Plastic love: Proliferation of PET bottles in Japan complicates a sustainable future

Japan has long had a love affair with the PET bottle — both full and empty.

The clear, strong and lightweight plastic outperformed aluminum, steel and glass to hold 76% of all nonalcoholic drinks in the country in 2020, according to the Japan Soft Drinks Association (JSDA). And, thanks to a proactive industry, stringent laws and compliant consumers, Japan was among the top countries in the world for PET bottle collection in 2021, at 93%, and recycling, at 89%, according to the Council for PET Bottle Recycling.

Still, growing environmental awareness has put the consumption of single-use plastic under a harsh spotlight. Even with steps to reduce the volume of fossil fuel-derived PET required for new bottles, there remain calls for more to be done.

Forty years on since the introduction of this packaging for soft drinks, how and why has PET bottle consumption and processing in Japan changed and what does the future hold?

Of the 665,000 tons of PET bottles collected in Japan in 2019, 46% were picked up by municipalities and 54% came from the “business route,” which includes factories, offices, schools and recycling boxes at vending machines. | GETTY IMAGES

Patented in 1973, the PET bottle was invented by Nathaniel Wyeth, an American mechanical engineer and inventor. Building on the work of colleagues who created PET in 1941, Wyeth’s variant of polyethylene terephthalate could withstand the pressure of carbonated liquids while still being lighter than glass and virtually unbreakable.

Japan first adopted the material in 1977 for packaging soy sauce until a revision to the container and packaging standards in the Food Sanitation Act allowed its use to be expanded to beverages in February 1982. In the same year, the first heat-resistant PET bottle was developed in Japan and the Japan PET Bottle Association was established.

At first, liquids were limited to fruit juice, closely followed by varieties of tea. Use for liquor, of which most was shōchū, was permitted in 1985.

Bottle size was restricted by the industry to 1 liter or more to curb waste (as bottles were largely incinerated in those days) but consumer demand for smaller containers and the introduction of PET bottle recycling in the 1990s ushered in the release of 500-milliliter bottles in 1996.

As part of efforts to support the recycling process, beverage and PET bottle manufacturing companies published Industry Voluntary Design Guidelines in 1992. Under the recommendations, bottles were to be clear and made solely of PET, with no direct printing on them; caps were to be made only of plastic and labels were to be easily removable by hand.

Shunichi Nasu, general manager of the Japan Soft Drinks Association's business planning division, says an estimated 30% of the PET bottles collected in Japan are exported, largely because they are too dirty to be used. | COURTESY OF SHUNICHI NASU
Shunichi Nasu, general manager of the Japan Soft Drinks Association’s business planning division, says an estimated 30% of the PET bottles collected in Japan are exported, largely because they are too dirty to be used. | COURTESY OF SHUNICHI NASU

Shunichi Nasu, general manager of the business planning division at the JSDA, says the “foresight” and “great decisions” of the industry leaders who made those guidelines has helped Japan far exceed the PET bottle recycling rate of the European Union (58%) and the United States (28%).

However, the JSDA, whose industry members collaborate on common, noncompetitive issues such as recycling, wants to do more. It is working toward 100% collection, which would increase the recycling rate even further. One key way to achieve this is by reducing contamination of bottles before collection.

Of the 665,000 tons of PET bottles collected in 2019, 46% were picked up by municipalities and 54% came from the “business route,” which includes factories, offices, schools and recycling boxes at vending machines.

Miho Hayashi of the IGES Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies says that collecting 'clean' PET is vital in efforts to promote bottle-to-bottle recycling and make it more competitive. | COURTESY OF MIHO HAYASHI
Miho Hayashi of the IGES Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies says that collecting ‘clean’ PET is vital in efforts to promote bottle-to-bottle recycling and make it more competitive. | COURTESY OF MIHO HAYASHI

Today, PET from homes is predominantly clean (rinsed, with cap and label removed), unlike many collections from the business route. Large organizations also perform well, while buildings shared by numerous small and midsized enterprises tend to have less sorted recycling, says Nasu. Street collections fare worst.

In 2020, more than 30% of the content in recycling boxes by vending machines in the Tokyo area were non-PET, namely tobacco packaging (28%), alcohol containers (22%) and daily living waste (19%).

The problem also extends to the rest of Japan. According to Miho Hayashi of the Kanagawa Prefecture-based IGES Centre Collaborating with UNEP on Environmental Technologies, the disposal of non-PET waste in bins located next to vending machines is “a challenge for increasing recycling” that has prompted many companies to consider “how to modify the design of such bins so that only PET bottles can be disposed of.”

Contamination renders PET bottle recycling expensive and difficult at best, and inefficient or impossible at worst. An estimated 30% of the PET bottles collected in Japan are exported, largely because they are too dirty to be used, Nasu says. If contaminants can be reduced or removed from bottles collected through the business route, there is a greater chance that more PET recycling can be done domestically.

Collecting as much clean PET as possible is vital to promote “bottle-to-bottle” recycling and make it more competitive, says Hayashi. This form of horizontal recycling “can reduce or even avoid the use of virgin resin, a material derived from fossil fuels” by using “material and chemical recycling to allow PET bottles to be reborn as new PET bottles.” The closed loop results in a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide compared to creating new PET from fossil-based resources.

At present, only 15.7% of PET bottles in Japan are produced by horizontal recycling. Most undergo downcycling, as their constituent materials are transformed into textiles or low-quality plastics. Although better than not recycling, once this process begins, recycling becomes harder and, ultimately, no longer possible.

The soft drinks industry remains confident that PET bottles will continue to be Japan’s container of choice for years to come. | REUTERS
The soft drinks industry remains confident that PET bottles will continue to be Japan’s container of choice for years to come. | REUTERS

Recognizing these limitations, the JSDA declared in April 2021 that its members would achieve 50% bottle-to-bottle recycling by 2030. Although Nasu admits “there is a big journey ahead,” he is confident the promise of “clean” PET will convince consumers to support the cause.

The JSDA is trialing a new kind of recycling box by vending machines. It features an enforced lid to make it difficult to open by consumers and a smaller, less visible opening to prevent it being used for trash. In line with education efforts, the box is orange — the same color as the branding for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities — and labels convey key messages detailing the box’s target refuse.

Ito-en placed what it called a 'Tsubuseru Recycling Box' in Shibuya in December 2020 to raise awareness of its bottle-to-bottle recycling efforts. | COURTESY OF ITO-EN
Ito-en placed what it called a ‘Tsubuseru Recycling Box’ in Shibuya in December 2020 to raise awareness of its bottle-to-bottle recycling efforts. | COURTESY OF ITO-EN

Several large Japanese soft drink manufacturers are also appealing to consumers to dispose of PET bottles at work, in train stations and on the street as carefully as they do at home.

In December 2020, Ito-en placed what it called a “Tsubuseru Recycling Box” in Shibuya to raise awareness of its bottle-to-bottle efforts. The transparent bin was fitted with technology to compress each PET bottle in 20 seconds. In an on-site survey, less than half of passersby said they understood the meaning of bottle-to-bottle recycling.

“Among those who throw away non-PET in recycling boxes, many think they are doing right by not littering, so we wanted to see if bottle-to-bottle awareness would change their view,” says company spokesperson Aichiro Yamaguchi. “Through our efforts we were able to confirm that the box is interesting and leads to proper sorting and understanding.”

Similarly, the Kirin Group and Lawson teamed up in 2021 to promote bottle-to-bottle recycling by placing new PET bottle collection machines outside Lawson stores. On the outer panel, users were asked to wash their bottles and remove labels and caps before feeding them into the machine to be crushed. As an incentive, users received one Lawson Ponta point for every five bottles inserted. If the data is promising, the pair plan to roll out the scheme to more stores this year.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Suntory says its new logo, launched this month, “Botoru wa shigen! Sasutenaburu botoru e” (“Bottles are resources! Towards a Sustainable Bottle”), will strengthen its communication to consumers on horizontal recycling. The company recorded a bottle-to-bottle recycling rate of 37% in 2021 and aims to use recycled PET materials for more than half of its total plastic bottle weight in Japan by 2025.

PET bottles from homes are predominantly clean (rinsed, with cap and label removed), unlike many collections from the business route. | REUTERS
PET bottles from homes are predominantly clean (rinsed, with cap and label removed), unlike many collections from the business route. | REUTERS

With the drive to gather more clean PET, Hideo Akabane, vice-chief secretariat of The Council for PET Bottle Recycling, says “further significant growth can be expected (in bottle-to-bottle recycling) as multiple new production plants will be launched in the future.”

Companies are also exploring new ways to reduce the amount of PET required to make bottles. Since these efforts began in 2004, manufacturers have reduced the weight of an average PET bottle by 25%, equating to savings of 185,200 tons in 2019, according to The Council for PET Bottle Recycling.

Suntory claims its 550-milliliter Tennensui water bottle is the lightest in Japan at a mere 11.9 grams. It uses 30% plant-based materials, which means 40% fewer petroleum-derived ingredients are used per bottle. Asahi Soft Drinks’ Mitsuya Cider bottles are also 27% lighter than they were in 2004.

Recently developed technologies utilizing nitrogen and pressurization have also led to more lightweight, heat-resistant bottles.

A forklift carries PET bottles for recycling at a waste facility in Tokyo in 2019. | REUTERS
A forklift carries PET bottles for recycling at a waste facility in Tokyo in 2019. | REUTERS

Ensuring PET bottles keep their shape and that any carbonated drink inside has an adequate shelf life are the biggest obstacles to making bottles lighter, according to Nasu.

“We can’t reduce the amount of plastic used as quickly as we have done in the past 20 years, and we’re now in a place where it’s difficult to reduce more, but we’re still looking for opportunities,” he says.

One new growth area for plastic reduction is in online bulk sales of soft drinks. Following an amendment to the law in 2020, companies are able to forgo labels on individual PET bottles provided the necessary product information is printed on the box, thereby placing consumers one step closer to “clean” PET.

Under this system, Asahi Soft Drinks offers label-free bottled water, ready-to- drink tea and yogurt beverages, while Coca-Cola Co.’s I Lohas bottle sports an embossed logo.

The pandemic-induced uptick in online shopping is expected to stimulate ongoing demand, according to GlobalData’s Market Pulse Survey, which found almost one-third of consumers intend to maintain or increase their bulk soft drink purchasing habits.

An estimated 30% of the PET bottles collected in Japan are exported, largely because they are too dirty to be used. | GETTY IMAGES
An estimated 30% of the PET bottles collected in Japan are exported, largely because they are too dirty to be used. | GETTY IMAGES

The future offers further opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of the PET bottle. The Coca-Cola Co. offered a taste in October 2021 with the launch of its first bottle made entirely from plant-based packaging. The technology used to create the PlantBottle “signals a step-change in the commercial viability of the biomaterial,” according to a company statement.

Nevertheless, grassroots campaigns to reduce or eliminate PET bottle usage and promote more sustainable lifestyles have sprung up in Japan in recent years. Nonprofit organization Mymizu, for example, provides a water refill app that allows users to access free water on the go — from shops, cafes and other sites — so they don’t need to buy bottled water.

Despite the growing number of alternatives, the soft drinks industry remains confident that PET will continue to be Japan’s container of choice for years to come.

“We gave consumers options — cans, glass, PET — and they liked PET, so our responsibility is to provide a continuous supply,” says Nasu, who touts the JSDA’s stance that PET bottles can do more good than harm in the long run. “I want a future where consumers think empty PET bottles are not garbage, but resources to help the Earth.”

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