January 31, 2004


Food Waste in Japan

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.17 (January 2004)

Every year, Japan produces about 400 million tons of industrial waste and about 50 million tons of household and general commercial waste. Of the household and general commercial waste, about 20 million tons consist of food waste. This is 6 times the weight of used-newspaper waste and 4 times that of discarded automobiles.

Now, how much food waste is being recycled? For food waste from the "processing and manufacturing" stage, 48 percent is being recycled. Examples of this include feeding pigs fresh bean curd pressings that are byproducts after making tofu.

On the other hand, most food waste from the "distribution" stage is not recycled. Examples include unsold food at supermarkets and lunch boxes and hamburger meat that have passed the expiration date at convenience stores. This is mostly incinerated and sent to landfills.

Under Japan's Basic Law for Establishing a Recycling-Based Society, which entered into force in January 2003, the Food Recycling Law took effect in June of the same year. This law's aims are to reduce the amount of food waste generated by food manufacturers and restaurants, and to promote the reuse of food waste such as by turning it into livestock feed and compost.

Pressed into action by this law, an increasing number food manufacturers and restaurants are working to use food waste as compost. One of those initiatives is by the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo. This hotel previously had a contractor deal with the waste, but today turns not only food waste such as banquet hall leftovers but also used flowers from hotel wedding ceremonies into compost in a composting facility set up below the hotel.

The compost is used by farmers contracted to grow vegetables, which are then purchased by the hotel. The hotel was able to save the costs it once paid to a waste management company, and recovered the cost of the new in-house composting facility in about 3 years. There are an increasing number of initiatives like this around the country to create a circular flow of materials between producer and consumer.

Seiyu, a major supermarket chain, was able to reduce the amount of unsold food disposed by about 18 percent just in a year, through such measures as more careful procurement to avoid waste, as well as making unsold food available for employees to purchase before its expiration date, as "ecological discount products."

These efforts have led not only to a reduction of food waste but also to cost reductions. In Japan, where waste disposal sites are running out and disposal costs increasing every year, this kind of waste reduction initiative is being pursued in earnest as a cost reduction strategy at many corporations and factories.
Seibu Department Stores Recycle Food Waste
FamilyMart to Adopt On-Site Microwave Disposer for Food Waste
Food Delivery Truck to Collect Vegetable Waste

However, food made or grown in Japan supplies only 40 percent of the nation's food consumption (calorie base), so the supply of compost made from food waste will always exceed demand. Therefore, there are an increasing number of initiatives to turn food waste into energy, for which Japan's self-sufficiency rate is a mere 20 percent.

For example, at several large shopping centers, food waste generated at food corners and restaurants are thrown into a tank called a bio-reactor, which then produces methane gas to run a boiler and heat water.

Also, there are facilities that are using fuel cells to turn methane gas produced from food waste into electricity. On Port Island in Kobe City, Japan's first "fuel cell bio-gasificiation power plant" gathers sorted food waste from hotels in the city, produces methane gas by fermentation, and uses it in fuel cells to generate electricity.
Fuel Cell Power Plant Produces Biogas from Food Waste
MOE Embarks on Fuel Cell Project Powered by Food Waste

Currently, many local governments and commercial facilities are turning food waste into methane gas and using it to produce electricity or to use as a fuel for boilers. These initiatives are likely to increase in the future.

Now, what kind of recycling initiatives are there at "consumer" stage, when food waste is generated from the household kitchen? In Aya town (about 7,600 residents) of Miyazaki Prefecture, which we introduced in our March 2003 newsletter, the local government collects food waste.

As a collection fee, each household is charged 100 yen (about U.S.$1) and retails stores are charged 200 yen (about U.S.$2) per month. The food waste collected is composted and used by local farmers to grow vegetables, which are then consumed by local people. The food waste is then collected again. In this way, the nutrients are recycled locally. This initiative is beneficial not only for reducing waste but also for increasing local food self-sufficiency.

Also in Nagai City of Yamagata Prefecture and Shinami Town of Iwate Prefecture, food waste generated at households and commercial facilities is being composted, then used to grow organic produce to promote "local production, local consumption."

Sapporo City is encouraging residents to compost using cardboard boxes. The composting method requires only a cardboard box, soil conditioner purchased at a gardening store, a shovel, a thermometer, and a scale.

An increasing number of people are trying composting using earthworms and food waste treatment machines, some powered by electricity and some hand-powered.
Earthworm-Compost Instructors Wanted

Also, "eco-cooking," which minimizes food waste generated in the kitchen, is gaining popularity. Eco-cooking guidebooks are being published and workshops held. Some elementary and junior high schools are teaching eco-cooking as part of their environmental education programs.

Faced by the prospect of a shortage of new landfill sites, people are generally quite aware of the issue of waste, but as far as efforts reducing and recycling waste generated at the household level are concerned, not been much progress has been made yet.

Food waste constitutes a large portion of waste in Japan. With the new legislation and the threat of overflowing landfill sites, we can expect to see more initiatives in the future, some to increase Japan's self-sufficiency rates for food and energy, some to do with "local production, local consumption" movements around the country, and many more. Please watch the JFS information center for new developments in this area.