Students bring Asia knowledge to tackle Japan's plastic challenge

With a predilection for plastic wrapping on food and disposable goods, Japan is among the highest producers of plastic waste in the world. How to encourage Japanese producers and consumers to reduce plastic waste was the theme of this year's Asia Savvy Student Challenge, run by University of Auckland's New Zealand Asia Institute and supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. The Foundation's Ruby Dalmer, who attended at the event, writes about the challenge and the solutions the students came up with.
Ruby Dalmer presenting to a room

At the event, the Foundation's Ruby Dalmer spoke about the Foundation and its work

Confronting complexity with creativity, University of Auckland students packed into the Business School to spend a rainy Wednesday afternoon theorising ways to lift sustainability in Asia.

The New Zealand Asia Institute Asia Savvy Student Challenge 2023, held in collaboration with Zespri International and sponsored by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, connected students across a broad array of disciplines to tackle a real-world sustainability problem.

The task: to compete for the most innovative solutions to Zespri International’s sustainability challenges. 

Although attending the event as a speaker, I also joined one of the groups taking part in the challenge. It was a unique window into how students perceived complex challenges and developed culturally informed solutions. 

The event started off with a presentation from Monica Mireles Serrano and Rieko Shida of Zespri International who spoke about how Zespri is setting its sights on creating a new plastic economy.

By 2025, they are aiming for 100 percent of all products to be reusable, recyclable, and compostable. Their goal is to fully decouple the use of plastic from the consumption of finite resources. 

Where Zespri’s 100 percent consumer packaging target is 97% realised in Europe, the plastic-loving preferences of Japanese consumers thwart their sustainable packaging ambitions.

A room of people sitting at desks looking at projections on a screen

Ruby: "Across the groups, a common thread tying our thinking together was drawing on rich Asia experience and cultural knowledge."

In Japan, packaging quality is judged on a hierarchy that places perceived hygiene, protection, and aesthetic value over sustainability concerns.

Zespri challenged students to brainstorm solutions to this challenge. They were prompted to question why Japanese attitudes might be different from other countries and how we can change attitudes to promote sustainability.

Breaking off into groups of three to four, participants were given 45 minutes to discuss theories and present sustainable solutions to an audience. 

Across the groups, a common thread was drawing on the students' rich Asia experience and cultural knowledge. Students perceived the problem based on their connections to and understanding of Asia, and how this may inform consumer preference in Japan. 

The solutions were passionate, culturally informed, and community minded. For example, the group I was in, my teammate brought up East Asian gift giving culture, and how gifting aesthetically pleasing fruit is a sign of deep respect.

Our solutions then centred around maintaining aesthetics while adding more sustainable additional functionality — like reusing packaging as a fruit bowl.

Other groups drew on the importance of community in Japan and suggested getting the whole family involved with sustainability through loyalty programmes — like families bringing back plastic packaging to the supermarket in exchange for colourful stickers.

Another group suggested re-defining the luxury of plastic packaging to emphasise the link between premium products produced in New Zealand, and sustainable packaging.

Ruby Dalmer standing between two projection screens speaking to a room of people

Across the board, innovation always sat alongside empathy for and cultural understanding of Japanese consumers. 

After we presented our solutions, Rieko and Monica talked about the ongoing initiatives Zespri is currently overseeing to address this challenge in the Japanese market.

They discussed setting quantitative plastic reduction KPIs, setting tangible packing standards to be used by industry partners, developing new packaging products, and improving transparency.

Like the students, Zespri is also focusing on crafting an empathetic understanding of the Japanese consumer — asking fundamental questions about the current consumer value placed on plastic packaging. 

The event was a unique avenue to explore the intersection of industry expertise and young, innovative approaches to sustainability.

Importantly, it was also an interesting showcase of how young New Zealanders are understanding complex challenges in Asia through the lens of personal experience and cultural knowledge. Approaching innovation from this standpoint leads to passionate, informed, and compelling solutions with real change-making potential.

* In 2021, the Japanese government pledged to reduce single-use plastic use by 25 percent by 2030 and aims to become a plastic-free society by 2050