‘Closing the Loop’: global case studies and the Circular Economy in Japan

Mariko McTier
May 27, 2019 · 6 min read

With booming levels of waste, an ocean plastics crisis and depleting natural resources, our current economic model seems to be broken. But what’s the alternative?

The Circular Economy has been touted as a potential solution — an attractive concept that challenges the existing ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, and proposes a, circular, more holistic approach to growth that works for both business and the environment.

In the linear model, we extract raw materials from the earth to make a product, and after its use, any waste (e.g. packaging) is thrown away.

The Circular Economy model, however, is based on the following three principles:

1. Design out waste and pollution

2. Keep products and materials in use

3. Regenerate natural systems

A video summarising the concept of a Circular Economy (Source: Ellen Macarthur Foundation)

By following these principles, we ‘close the loop’ — optimising the flow of finite resources, designing out waste, and even leveraging economic activity to rebuild the health of our systems.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but how do you take the Circular Economy out of theory and into the market?

That is the question we sought to answer when we brought together nearly 100 people in Tokyo in March to highlight existing examples of how business can use circular economy principles to be more sustainable — better both for their bottom line and the environment.

Our event held on March 1st 2019, in collaboration with the Circular Economy Club, So Now Asia and Gaiax

Global Case Studies

As part of a Circular Economy Club global screening event of ‘Closing the Loop’ — a documentary by Emmy Award winning director Graham Ehlers Sheldon — we picked out examples of the circular economy in practice around the world from the documentary and invited industry experts to comment.

The examples we chose included Interface, a global flooring company that is innovating both the design of and recycling process for their carpet tiles in it’s mission to wean itself entirely off virgin materials; Dutch aWEARness, a pioneer in circular textiles from the Netherlands that produces workwear and suits that can be recycled up to 8 times (whilst maintaining the same quality); and Novamont, an Italian company that has developed a bioplastic that can, for example, be used to make biodegradable Lavazza coffee capsules.

Materials created by Dutch aWEARness

Each example shows how a company has taken a non-circular product or industry and applied circular economy principles, resulting in a positive impact on their business, as well as on the environment.

Waste & the Circular Economy in Japan

Led by our partner for this event, Sann Carriere of So Now Asia, a sustainability consultancy based in Singapore, our panel of experts reflected on the film excerpts and shared their own experiences with regards to the Circular Economy (サーキュラーエコノミー or 循環型経済 in Japan).

Zero Waste Academy

Akira Sakano joined us from Kamikatsu, a small town in Tokushima Prefecture that has become known internationally as Japan’s ‘Zero Waste Town’. Akira is Chair of the Board for the nonprofit Zero Waste Academy (ZWA), an organisation that aims to use the town’s experiences to raise awareness and educate people about waste.

The town’s waste is split by its inhabitants into an impressive 45 categories for recycling, a feat which enables it to recycle 80% of its waste.

This is all the more impressive considering that in Japan, on average only 20% of household waste is recycled, whilst 80% goes to the incinerator.

Just 5 of the 45 categories of recycling in Kamikatsu, here separating different colours of glass (Source: ZWA FB)

Aside from demonstrating how a high level of community engagement can help to realise such a rigorous recycling system, one of the key insights ZWA provides is the makeup of the 20% of waste that cannot be recycled — either because the necessary recycling technology doesn’t exist, or because it is too expensive.

For example, an astonishing 20% of the unrecyclable waste is made up of single-use diapers.

Tracking the consumer products and packaging that end up ‘exiting’ the loop, especially in a town with such comprehensive recycling processes as Kamikatsu, can help consumers and producers identify where poor design and/or compatibility with existing recycling systems are responsible for producing waste.


Helping to tackle the 20% of waste that Kamikatsu isn’t currently able to recycle is Terracycle, a US startup that is creating a market for unpopular recycled materials — complex materials that tend not to be recycled. Expanding into Japan, they have already run pilot initiatives to recycle and create value from what we call ‘waste’, from toothbrushes to the ubiquitous plastic umbrella.

Terracycle’s plastic umbrella recycling scheme (Source: Terracycle)

However, materials such as plastic and paper are only able to be recycled between 4–9 times before they become unusable, so recycling alone will not lead us to a truly circular economy.

Terracycle’s General Manager for APAC, Eric Kawabata, told us about the recent launch of their initiative ‘Loop’, partnering with multinational consumer brands such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble to use the ‘milkman model’ for a range of consumer products. The initiative uses a collect-and-refill model that replaces disposable with reusable packaging that is made from materials that (unlike plastic and paper) maintain 100% of their value when recycled, such as glass and stainless steel.

A selection of Loop’s new reusable packaging, from ice cream to cleaning products (Source: Loopstore)

Especially in Japan, where recycling and waste management is complicated by differing capabilities and rules between prefectures, such an initiative can ensure the producer maintains ownership of the packaging, making it easier for them to retrieve, reuse and recycle it.

Ohkawa Printing

Another company that is helping to recirculate ‘waste’ is Ohkawa Printing — a zero carbon printing company based in Yokohama. The company’s CEO, Tetsuo Ohkawa, told us how they provide their customers with sustainable paper alternatives.

Of course, recycled paper is nothing new, but Ohkawa Printing has gone a step further by offering its customers papers made of other fibrous waste materials such as banana plants. With the motto “if it has fibre, we can make paper from it,” Ohkawa is now speaking with farmers and other stakeholders to explore the potential resource in what remains once crops are harvested.

(Source: Ohkawa Printing)

The Role of Consumer Action

Though the responsibility to design circular products and systems may lie with companies and governments, Eric Kawabata reminded us in his closing words of the power that we have as consumers to effect change.

“I’d like to encourage all of you to engage in conscious consumption. Forget politics. You have the power. Almost every major consumer products company in the world has put out commitments to move to recyclable packaging by 2030, if not earlier. This is unprecedented, and in response to public concerns about the environment. They are listening. You have the power to create change just with your decisions as a consumer.” — Eric Kawabata, Terracycle

Feel free to get in touch, share your questions or let me know what you thought of this article in the comments below, and follow us on Facebook for news on future Social Innovation Japan / Circular Economy Club Tokyo events.

For more on social businesses in Japan, check out 5 social businesses in Japan changing the way we “do good”.

Social Innovation Japan

Social Innovation Japan is a platform for social action. We organise events, workshops, and programs for people to learn, connect and take action on today’s most pressing challenges. Together, we are building a movement for social good from Japan, with the rest of the world.

Thanks to Robin Lewis

Mariko McTier

Written by

Mariko is Co-Founder of Social Innovation Japan — a platform to provide people with the tools, information, and network to tackle real-world problems.

Social Innovation Japan

Social Innovation Japan is a platform for social action. We organise events, workshops, and programs for people to learn, connect and take action on today’s most pressing challenges. Together, we are building a movement for social good from Japan, with the rest of the world.

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