Throwaway society: Rejecting a life consumed by plastic (D’Alene & Jared)

The article describes Japan as the second-largest contributor of plastic waste in the world, 40% of which is single-use plastic. Disposable plastic is so ubiquitous in all kinds of products, it is difficult to go ‘plastic-less’. Japanese institutions have made efforts to reduce plastic waste. In addition, McKirdy features various Japanese individuals who strive to reduce plastic waste, such as Mona Neuhauss, who sells reusable metal straws to reduce the use of plastic straws and believes the action of using less plastic has a knock-on effect on others. The article is optimistic that Japan can reduce their plastic use because of their waste-averse mindset.

McKirdy illustrates that capitalist human activities in Japan have significant influences on the environment. Approximately 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into oceans worldwide annually. These microplastics pollute food chains such that the average person ingests the amount of plastic equivalent to a credit card weekly, which is an area of increasing concern to human health (Royte, n.d.). Plastic waste harms every creature in the ecosystem through ingestion, trapping animals and breeding pathogens (Reddy, 2018). This parallels the similar devastation to marine life posed by the Chisso corporations’ dumping of methylmercury in Minamata’s waters (Walker, 2010). Both examples are representations of the adverse impacts Japan’s rapid industrialisation have on the environment. Much like Chisso’s factories, plastic production is the result and symbol of tapping on industrial prowess to fulfill the modern need for convenience at the expense of Japan’s environmental health.

McKirby explains that human actions on the environment will ultimately affect humans too, as we ingest discarded plastic through consuming animals who have accumulated them. Paralleling this, Walker (2010) discusses the crippling effects bioaccumulation of mercury had on the health of Minamata townsfolk. It is impossible to segregate human activity from the environment, in spite of our technological prowess (Walker, 2010), and our actions on the environment will result in a backlash on our own health.

McKirdy points out two key issues with Japan’s waste problem: the first is the indiscriminate use of plastic packaging in most aspects of consumption. This part of the problem cannot only be tackled by those in positions of power. As Odachi believes, “a fundamental shift in mindset is needed among politicians and business leaders.” However, the issue lies in the constant obstinacy of powerful actors in changing, as reflected in Kirby (2011), wherein “sustainable development” is often carried with the “characteristic Japanese emphasis on the development half of the phrase.” This notion is best seen in the article by how businesses “only look for the answer [to sustainable practices] from within their existing business model. But the most important thing is not to produce so much disposable plastic in the first place.” In other words – there is merely a patronising performance of sustainability from influential stakeholders, but no real commitment to it.

The second part of the problem concerns the actual usage of plastics by consumers – an area where active efforts by individuals can make a difference. The “green” aspect of this article is embodied in highlighting individual ground-up efforts in tackling an issue widely perceived to be an institutional onus. McKirdy’s article emphasises the influence of ground-up action over the environment. The existence of individuals such as Seguchi and Neuhauss, who devote a large part of their lives to promoting sustainable personal habits in Japan, is testament to the promise of a revolution in Japan’s consumption practices. The foregrounding of civil society as a prominent stakeholder in Japan’s environmental efforts is echoed in Waley’s (2000) analysis of Japan’s Multi-nature-style river planning initiative. Though focused on government policy, Waley nonetheless highlights the importance of public buy-in in the determination of an initiative’s success. In McKirdy’s article, there is a cautious optimism of the power of the people. Should there be sufficient will from the Japanese public to radically change their consumption habits, and “people […] express their opinions” by taking action, it could act as effective ways of signalling that demands of the public are changing, and it would be remiss for any institution to ignore that.

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Article link:


Kirby, P. (2011). Constructing Sustainable Japan. In Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan (pp. 160-192). University of Hawai’i Press. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from

McKirdy, A. (2020, January 10). Throwaway society: Rejecting a life consumed by plastic. The Japan Times.

Reddy, S. (2018, September 24). Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean. PEW.

Royte, E. (n.d.). We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us? National Geographic. Retrieved July 19, 2020, from

Waley, P. (2000). Following the flow of Japan’s river culture. Japan Forum, 12(2), 199–217.

Walker, B. (2010). Introduction: Knowing Nature. Toxic archipelago: a history of industrial disease in Japan . University of Washington Press. (pp. 3-21).

Walker, B. (2010). Mercury’s Offspring. Toxic archipelago: a history of industrial disease in Japan . University of Washington Press. (pp. 137-175).

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