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Is Japanese ‘Mottainai’ a valid solution to today’s waste management system?

The Nobel Prize winner-cum-renowned Kenyan social activist, Wangari Maathai introduced the word ‘Mottainai’ as a slogan for environmental protection at a session of the United Nations in 2005.

Subhro Prakash GhoshSubhro Prakash Ghosh | Updated: 10-03-2020 23:42 IST | Created: 10-03-2020 23:42 IST
Is Japanese ‘Mottainai’ a valid solution to today’s waste management system?
"The meaning of the Japanese term 'Mottainai' encompasses the 4Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle and repair...," opined the Kenyan Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai at a session of the United Nations. Image Credit: Devdiscourse News Desk

The Japanese have a word 'Mottainai' to express regret when they realize something valuable is wasted. The word gives a strong message with translation 'don't waste anything worthy'. 'Mottainai' is a term in Japanese that conveys a sense of regret over waste with an exclamation, which can be translated as 'What a waste!'

'Mottainai's' 4Rs link to materials' retransformation

The concept of 'Mottainai' handed down from grandparents to grandchildren in Japan can be called as the root of solution which today's generations have been seeking for. In other words, the way we have inundated the earth, rivers, oceans, beaches, natural resources etc. with litters and indecomposable plastics, Mottainai seems to be a beautiful solution far from people's sight hidden in the Japanese dictionary.

The year 1907 is remembered for the invention of world's first fully synthetic plastic 'bakelite' by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. The invention undoubtedly brought a revolution in materials by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into world commerce. But severe advancement of plastics in varied formats turned out a curse by the end of 20th century as the persistent polluters of many environmental functionalities and marking its presence from the Mount Everest to bottom of the ocean. Around 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are being discarded into the oceans every year by countries with ocean coastlines. The constantly increasing mammoth chunks of plastic garbage have already compelled many species to extinct under the sea. And now it's not a surprise to see animals like cows, goats, dogs etc. consuming plastics from waste dumps.

Significance of Mottainai in today's world

The significance of Mottainai was unknown to the world for a long time. The Nobel Prize winner-cum-renowned Kenyan social activist, Wangari Maathai introduced the word 'Mottainai' as a slogan for environmental protection at a session of the United Nations in 2005. Brandishing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word 'Mottainai', she explained, "the meaning of the Japanese term encompasses the 4Rs of reduce, reuse, recycle and repair ... [and] made the case that we should all use limited resources effectively and share them fairly if we are to avert wars arising from disputes over natural resources."

Wangari Maathai had given her endeavours to popularize the Japanese word in places outside Japan. "Even at personal level, we can all reduce, re-use and recycle, what is embraced as 'Mottainai' in Japan, a concept that also calls us to express gratitude, to respect and to avoid wastage," she opined at the 2009 United Nations Summit on Climate Change.

A Japan-based magazine 'Look Japan' ran a cover story titled "Restyling Japan: Revival of the 'Mottainai' Spirit" in November 2002. The story documented the motivation amongst volunteers in a 'toy hospital' in Japan to 'develop in children the habit of looking after their possessions', the re-emergence of repair shops specializing in repairing household appliances or children's clothes, the recycling of PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and other materials, the collection of waste edible oil, and more generally the efforts to stop the trend of throwing away everything that can no longer be used, i.e. the efforts of reviving 'the spirit of Mottainai'.

The author, Hitoshi Chiba described 'Mottainai' in that issue as, "We often hear in Japan the expression 'Mottainai', which loosely means 'wasteful' but in its full sense conveys a feeling of awe and appreciation for the gifts of nature or the sincere conduct of other people. There is a trait among Japanese people to try to use something for its entire effective life or continue to use it by repairing it. In this caring culture, people will endeavour to find new homes for possessions they no longer need. The 'Mottainai' principle extends to the dinner table, where many consider it rude to leave even a single grain of rice in the bowl. The concern is that this traditional trait may be lost."

The esteemed word is connected to Japan's indigenous religion Shintoism, which specifies that nature and man-made objects are imbued with their own 'kami' or spirit. It signifies the value of every material with no mind-set of disrespectfully discarding it. But many consider the word 'Mottainai' originating from Buddhism.

Contribution of 'Mottainai' to modern science

The Japanese word 'Mottainai' can undeniably be called today's sophisticated waste management system, a big solution to the world. Today scientists are able to separate and recycle everything from polystyrene to packaging for pills. The reduction of waste – be it single-use plastics, food or energy consumption – is surely high on the collective conscience in today's climate of environmental activism.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Japan is second only to the United States as the planet's biggest generator of plastic packaging waste per capita. But UNEP stated in a report in 2018, "thanks to a very effective waste management system and a high degree of social consciousness, [Japan] accounts for relatively limited leakages of single-use plastics in the environment."

Unfortunately, a tendency already floats in Japan of not caring 'Mottainai' despite being rooted in the Japanese culture. However, Mottainai Campaign still continues in Japan with the core objective of spreading the message to the world.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

Also Read: Kenya on plastic ban: How far it has worked, country set to take next step


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