Mottainai means “don’t be wasteful.” It’s one of those folksy sayings that reverberates through Japanese culture. All cultures have some similar concept, but it seems that in the developed world—the world of plastic wrap and paper plates and microwave cooking—the Japanese have a conflicted relationship with this concept. Many Americans seem to have completely forgotten the idea of “waste not, want not,” but in Japan, mottainai still lurks in the collective consciousness, even if most people can’t completely live up to its ideal.

The Japanese recycling program is mandatory and requires you to separate your garbage into the following sub-categories: (a) glass, metal, and PET1 bottles, (b) other recyclable plastic, (c) burnable trash (mostly food waste and things like used tissues), (d) non-burnable trash (e.g., light bulbs, rubber, aluminum foil, old tooth brushes), (e) newpapers, (f) cardboard and cardboard packaging, (g) recyclable, clean paper…and that list doesn’t include other categories like old clothes, bulk items like couches, and electronic goods which are picked up separately. The result of this much thought and time put into one’s garbage is you begin to hate plastic bags and packaging because you know you’ll have to rinse and sort it later to throw away. Because recycling is mandatory, Japanese packaging is designed to be recyclable or at least to fit into the garbage categories. You rarely see packaging like cans of nuts with a metal rim and a cardboard side (impossible to recycle, and also not burnable because of the metal rim) or milk cartons with plastic pour spouts that then have to be removed from the recyclable milk carton (in itself a separate category).

Nevertheless, the Japanese can be incredibly wasteful when it comes to packaging and plastic. A peach, a perfumed, juicy, glorious peach that I bought yesterday, came in a little individual plastic net to keep it from bumping up against other peaches. Vending machines are placed everywhere (sometimes you’ll see one standing alone on the side of a road, with a small power box connection rising from the dirt) to sell bottled drinks. Rice crackers and candies and cookies often come individually wrapped within a box. The wrapping of gifts is almost as important as the gift itself, and so a lot of effort and expense is expended on paper wrapping that will just be thrown away.

Ironically, the Japanese have an answer to this from their own culture: the furoshiki, a cloth wrapper that was traditionally used to wrap gifts and carry items. Furoshiki can be simple cotton squares or incredibly gorgeous patterned silk. One would wrap the gift in the furoshiki, present the gift, unwrap it in front of the recipient, and keep the furoshiki to use again. I have seen articles and news that the environmental movement and the Japanese government is trying to push for furoshiki use. We’ll see…

The mottainai concept is especially evident in Japanese cuisine. Many dishes are specifically designed to use up leftovers. Last night on the TV show Kyō no Ryōri (Today’s Cooking) a woman demonstrated how to make a noodle dish with “old” vegetables, meaning stuff hanging about the fridge like carrots, cabbage, fresh ginger, daikon, etc., that you can finely dice, and add to noodles with cool dashi (stock).

Today I was hunting around the fridge and found a container of umeboshi (pickled plums) that I had bought from a local man who makes them himself the old fashioned way. The umeboshi have red shiso (aka-jiso) leaves mixed in; these color the plums a dark red and impart an herby flavor. Supermarket umeboshi usually do not have the leaves mixed in with the plums. I happened to notice a recipe last night for yukari (dried salt-cured akajiso mixed with salt) and realized I could use the shiso leaves from the homemade umeboshi to make the salt mix.

You blot the leaves with a towel and then spread them out on a plate (glass or ceramic) and microwave them carefully in 30 second bursts until dried out. I suppose I could have tried to leave them out in the sun. Then I crushed the leaves and mixed them with a little salt (they are already very salty from the pickling process). The recipe for this is in Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh.

I feel all warm and fuzzy having found a use for what I would have thrown away.