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    A long way from rice rations

    Japanese convenience stores, especially 7-Eleven, have shaped food retailing here in ways that have drawn a lot of attention. The egg-salad sandwiches on spongy white bread, the triangular o-nigiri, and the salads consisting largely of shredded iceberg lettuce and canned corn are still there, but they’ve been joined by snazzier and tastier offerings (some developed in cooperation with restaurant chefs) that are very popular among people who have to eat lunch at their desks or just hate to cook. The industry has become very competitive.

    Of course, the potential downside is the eternal problem of inventory. The Mainichi appears to be doing a series on wastefulness in Japan, spurred by the declaration by Nobel Peace Prize Wangari Maathai winner a few months ago that she just loves Japanese conservation-mindedness, and the first installment (Japanese, English) is about how much prepared food is thrown away at various convenience stores:

    In Japan, about 20 million tons of food waste is thrown out each year. That’s about 150 kilograms per person. As Japan looks to eliminate wastefulness, adopting the spirit of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, this unused food is raising questions over overproduction, especially in Japan’s convenience store business.

    “We do this because we’re taking into consideration the period in which the products will actually be consumed after they are taken home,” explains an official from the Kanto convenience store. As a rule the store is not permitted to discount products approaching their expiry date in the same way as supermarkets do.

    On the day the store was visited, it discarded 75 items, with a combined price of about 16,000 yen. Last year, a total of 4.5 million yen worth of prepared food products were thrown out — about 8 percent of sales of prepared food.

    That does sound like a lot, though I suspect that among Japan’s notoriously inefficient domestic industries it may not be egregious. You also have to wonder about a few things. For one, how does it stack up against the noodle shops and corporate dormitory cafeterias where many people who now eat convenience store meals would otherwise have eaten? Or against the amount of food such people who don’t like to cook throw away after one of their valiant but futile attempts at shopping?

    I was also wondering about compliance with recycling regulations, oddly unmentioned in the Mainichi article. I’m not very familiar with Japan for Sustainability, but it also quotes the 20 million tons figure and gives some others that are, presumably, based on the same data:

    Of the household and general commercial waste, about 20 million tons consist of food waste. This is six times the weight of used-newspaper waste and 4 times that of discarded automobiles.

    Out of 20 million tons of food waste, 18% is produced at the “processing and manufacturing” stage, about 30% is commercial waste from food distribution channels and restaurants, and the remaining 52% is from households. This means that, every year, Japanese households produce about 10 million tons of food waste, equivalent to annual rice consumption in Japan.

    The article also has a few interesting examples of businesses that are recycling their food waste. (I’m not really sure I needed to know that the New Otani Hotel has a compost pile underneath it, but, hey.)

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