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How Moving to Okinawa Sparked My Zero Waste Journey by @emmadendler, The Simple Environmentalist

Hello, everyone!

I’m Emma and I run the blog The Simple Environmentalist as well as a YouTube channel (by the same name). My focus is to make sustainable/low waste living fun, easy, cheap, and accessible to more people and break the aesthetic barriers that it usually carries. Today, I’d like to talk about how I live sustainably in Okinawa.

Before we dive in, you might be wondering, what is sustainable living? It goes by a lot of names: low waste, zero waste, eco-friendly, and so forth. What all those terms really boil down to is consuming what you need and not over-consuming. Over consumption leads to a less-sustainable life for you as an individual but also for the planet. The planet simply cannot handle how much we are producing and throwing away. 

The goal with the zero waste movement is not to produce literally zero waste, that’s not possible. The goal is simply to reduce our waste as much as possible without sacrificing quality of life. To make it less overwhelming, just thing of it as conscious consumption.

Moving to Okinawa was really my tipping point for living a more wasteless life. I had always used reusable water bottles and cared about recycling properly, but that was about it. When I moved here, I got to witness firsthand how much garbage is in our oceans and that is when I knew I needed to change my life more than what I was doing. 

I couldn’t continue to do beach clean-ups when I was part of the pollution problem.

I started small and got things like a cutlery set to keep in my purse and collected a bunch of reusable bags (I found a bunch second hand, double score!). I gave up fast fashion and tried to buy everything used if possible. 

The biggest thing for me, too, was finding a community. When I first moved here, it was hard. I joined the Facebook groups “Zero Waste Japan,” “Okinawa Vegans and Vegetarians,” and “Zero-Waste Living Okinawa” which was a great starting point. I started building a community on Instagram and even started the “Zero Waste Okinawa” Instagram page. From there, I just reached out to like minded-people throughout the community to talk about ideas and such.

Here is a list of easy things to do in Okinawa to reduce your waste and get involved:

  1. Be a part of the community. Join the Facebook groups listed above as well as others like “Oki Sustainable Sisterhood Swap.”

  2. Educate yourself on climate change, on the plastic pollution, the 6th mass extinction and so forth. Understanding the situation personally helps give me a reason to fight for change

  3. Don’t forget to register as a voter and request your absentee ballot! It is still important to vote in local and national elections even when living overseas. 

  4. Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid all plastic when in Japan. As you probably know, it is land of the plastic-obsessed over here. But, what you can do it avoid it when possible. Don’t quit buying things you need, but look for other options. Is there a rice option in paper instead of plastic? Can I get these apples package free instead of in plastic? Learn to ask yourselves these questions when shopping.

  5. Another hard one right now with COVID-19 restrictions is thrift shopping. But, when we are allowed to go again, try thrifting if you’ve never been before. Shopping second hand saves so much from going to landfill as well as prevents new products from being made. You can also check out Facebook marketplace!

  6. Partake in beach clean-ups! There is an “Okinawa Beach Cleanup” Facebook group. As great as it is to reduce your personal waste, it’s also important to save any waste from ending up in our oceans and affecting marine life.

  7. Educate others. I don’t mean start a blog or anything (unless you want to, of course), but rather talk to your kids, your spouse, your family back home, and so forth. Talk about these important issues like climate change and the plastic crisis as well as providing easy ways to help.

  8. Make the switch to reusables. These are often referred to as “the big four” because they are the four most commonly used single-use items: water bottles, coffee cups, plastic bags, and plastic cutlery. You can find high quality brands on Earth Hero. Please refrain from using amazon as the items listed on here are almost certainly drop-shipped and made not according to environmental standards.

  9. But don’t stop there! Continue to more “advanced” swap like make-up remover pads, diapers, menstrual products, and more.

  10. Switch to other eco-friendly products. Avoid products with microbeads/microplastics and other harmful substances. Try more natural shampoos, detergents, and other cleaners. Most brands ship out here and you can actually make a lot homemade. I make my own homemade dishwasher detergent and all purpose cleaner with ingredients found here on island!

  11. When it comes to water, I know a lot of people are concerned with drinking the tap here. But, you can still avoid plastic water in a few ways. I personally use a refillable brita pitcher. I know others who use a Berkey and others who use the big water jug refill program. There’s a plethora of ways to continue to refuse single-use water bottles here!

  12. Recycle properly! This goes for on and off base. If we don’t recycle properly, it will not be picked up and end up as litter or it will go to landfill. The more we know when it comes to proper recycling, the more that can be recycled and the less that has to be made new and turned into trash.

  13. Don’t throw out old items. There are SO many great ways to repurpose unwanted things. If you can’t upcycle it, try selling it on Facebook marketplace or donating to a local thrift store. You can also trade and swap on ground like “Oki Sustainable SIsterhood Swap” or “Oki Clothing Swap.”

  14. Learn some basic phrases in Japanese for reducing your waste like “no bag please” and so forth. Lucky for you, I already have a guide published to my blog, but better yet, I made a video of me using them in action so you can learn how they sound too. When in doubt, you can use Google translate and it will almost always be correct!

  15. When ordering things online, because it is bound to happen over here, there are a few things you can do to make it more eco-friendly:

  • First, ask the company to reduce their packaging as much as possible. You can do this by emailing their customer support to add it to your whole account (such as Amazon) or you can add it to each individual order as a note

  • Second, try ordering a lot at once. Instead of placing one Amazon order a week, try waiting and just doing one larger order a month to reduce packaging and emissions

  1. Shop local! Support the local Okinawan farmers by going to farmers markets. And, shop at the local grocery stores when possible. It’s easy to continue to find lots of staples like noodles, flour, and so forth. They even have meat, soy milk, almond milk, and other bits and bobs. These items generally only come from the mainland instead of commissary items that come from the US. So much less emissions!

  2. Make your own food! I don’t mean like meals, I’m talking things like granola, tortillas, peanut butter, all purpose cleaner, veggie broth, kombucha, and so forth. There are a lot of easy swaps (and some more time intensive ones, too) to reduce plastic, reduce emissions, and eat a bit cleaner too. Plus, tortillas and breads that are shipped here are often moldy, so you can skip that all together!

  3. Lastly, for now, is a big one, I think and that is to write to companies. Tell them what you think they can change to be more eco-friendly and praise companies that are doing well. Support good companies with you money!

Of course there are many other tips to live a more mindful lifestyle, but these are my more Okinawa-centric tips. I hope you enjoyed it and if you want to learn more from me, be sure to check out my website and YouTube channel.

My homemade all purpose citrus vinegar cleaner

A beach clean-up I hosted at Cape Maeda in 2018

A bottle I found that little critters had made their home

Post beach clean-up near Yomitan Gala

Microplastics are a real hazard to our marine life and even our own lives

Thanks so much for reading and until next time, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)



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