While Japan is committed to recycling and protecting the environment, with over five million vending machines and 50,000 convenience stores across the archipelago, buying bottled drinks while out and about is second nature to most people. A staggering 20 billion PET bottles are consumed each year in Japan. Moreover, in a culture where people don’t wish to be seen as expecting special treatment or getting something “extra,” the majority wouldn’t think to ask staff in a café or restaurant to refill their water bottle for them.
With the launch of this new app, however, things look set to change. (‘Mizu’ is the Japanese word for water). Using the MyMizu app, people can locate places to get free water refills — from public drinking fountains to restaurants and other participating businesses.
MyMizu is the brainchild of Robin Lewis and Mariko McTier, a pair of Tokyo-based millennials who share bicultural roots and a passion for social innovation. McTier was raised in the U.K. and has previously worked for a government program which facilitates innovation partnerships between Japan and the U.K. Lewis has lived and worked around the world, and has a background in humanitarian aid and international development. The duo joined forces to launch Social Innovation Japan, a platform for action on social and environmental issues, in 2017.
“At the heart of our work as Social Innovation Japan has been a mission to engage more people in social and environmental issues, ensuring that a growing community of people recognize the agency that they have to create change,” says McTier. “I’d been toying with the idea of leveraging technology and behavioral insights to encourage more sustainable consumer habits for many years. But although we were both aware of plastic waste as a global issue, neither of us had a clear vision of how we could tackle it.”
During a visit to Kyushu in southern Japan in the spring of 2018, the sight of the sheer number of plastic bottles on the beach was the catalyst that inspired Lewis to come up with the initial idea of developing an app.
“It seemed totally crazy that we were paying so much money for something we didn’t really need — bottled water — and that this habit was having an enormous effect on our natural environment, and so we decided to try and stop the problem at the source,” Lewis points out. “There are other services in other countries that have a similar offering, such as one called ‘Tap’ in the U.S., and ‘Refill’ in the U.K. However, MyMizu is the only free water refill app that we know of in Japan.”
Like many successful startups, MyMizu was developed with limited resources and a small band of dedicated personnel, but McTier says that things are moving in a positive direction, with a wide range of business partners and volunteers expressing interest in becoming involved since the launch of the app in September.
Changing cultural mindsets is another issue the team has faced. “One of the challenges is that some people may not want to drink from public water fountains in parks, stations and so on,” Lewis says. “To tackle this, we are building a network of partner businesses — such as cafés, shops, restaurants and hotels — where you can refill your bottle for free so that users have an alternative to public water fountains, and encouraging users to upload photos of new refill spots they discover.”
Lewis adds that Japanese people often carry reusable drink bottles as children, but come to depend more on vending machines and convenience stores as they grow older. To this end, refilling bottles is not a completely new idea, but rather one with which people need to reacquaint themselves.
The businesses who have signed up with MyMizu see the value of what McTier and Lewis are trying to achieve, and are keen to contribute to Japan’s nascent but growing sustainability movement. Partner businesses are provided with MyMizu stickers for their windows, letting people know they have “permission” to come in and refill their bottles.
“I think it comes down to community, and a sense of shared ownership. Sure, if you view refilling your water bottle as ‘taking’ water from a shop or business, then it is transactional and you may feel as though you need to give something in return. However, if you consider that both you and the business owner are part of a community, and it is in your shared interest to create an environment that is safe and sustainable to live in, then you are really just collaborating to create that desired environment using the resources and means available to you,” McTier explains.
Their timing seems to be perfect. Fueled by a sharp increase in inbound tourism in recent years, the number of foreign visitors to Japan quadrupled between 2012 and 2017. With Japan hosting the Rugby World Cup this year and the Tokyo Olympics coming in the summer of 2020, the nation is keen to show it is in touch with global trends — including working towards a more sustainable future.
The MyMizu team have big plans going forward, including improving the app by adding features such as games and a review function for refill spots. They are also working to educate and engage with the public through talks and workshops at schools, universities and companies, and are even exploring the idea of forming official partnerships with local governments to make their areas more “refill-friendly.”
“MyMizu is not just an app; it’s a movement. Education and in-person engagement are critical components of what we are trying to accomplish, which is not just to reduce plastic consumption but a larger shift in consciousness around sustainability,” Lewis says.
This post is part of our Winter 2019 editorial series on waste reduction. This series specifically focuses on the annual MAKE SMTHNG Week campaign taking place worldwide starting on Black Friday. We encourage you to participate in or host an event in your community. Shareable is a partner of this project with Greenpeace.
Take a look at the other articles in the series:
- Celebrate the radical power of DIY during MAKE SMTHNG Week
- Communities worldwide prepare to host MAKE SMTHNG Week events
- Fashion Detox Challenge invites people to pause, reflect and change
- Bring sustainability to the party with reusable party packs
- Right to Repair movement invites us to review the way we produce and consume electronics
- From Oakland to Utrecht, sustainability-focused maker villages unite artisans for creative exchange