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Conversations with Robin Lewis, co-founder of mymizu

Robin Lewis, is half Japanese, half English and has many years’ experience working with inter-governmental organisations, social enterprises and NGOs.
One day, back in 2018, while visiting Okinawa, he noticed first hand the impact of plastic pollution and decided to do something to address this issue. That is how the idea of mymizu was born. 
On top of being mymizu Co-founder, he is also the Co-founder & Director of Social Innovation Japan – a platform for social good focusing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and is a Consultant at the World Bank (Climate Change Group). 
 

Robin took part in our thrird edition of Conversations with Green Changemakers in Japan and you will find below, the player to listen to the full interview.

This podcast is also available to listen on Apple Podcast, Deezer and Spotify.

If you want to know more about mymizu and download the app, check mymizu website. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram.

Feel free to reach out to Robin if you have any questions via this page.

Robin Lewis

When and how did you become aware of the climate change issue? 

It’s quite a long story. But just to give you a snapshot, I’m half Japanese and also half English.

My mother’s family is originally from Miyagi Prefecture (Sendai) in the North of Japan.  When the tsunami happened in 2011, I was in the UK. But I came back because my family was here and that is how I started working in Humanitarian Affairs specifically with disasters.

So over five or six years, I was working full-time in disaster response based in Japan but working in several different countries that were affected by flooding, hurricanes, typhoons, all of these terrible things. And very quickly it became clear that this was part of a structural issue. The fact that there is climate change is making natural disasters worse and it is affecting the most marginalised people in many countries. Because of my job, I was directly faced with how serious the situation was and this is how I began to transition more towards working on climate change, and climate mitigation as well. 

You have quite an interesting career story so, can you tell us a bit more about it? 

It’s kind of a weird story, but ever since I was young, I think my parents wanted me to become a banker, or someone who is very successful in the corporate world. That is why I studied business at university. But I always say that studying business made me really despise business.

Indeed, I learnt so much about the negative impacts that traditional business has on society. And so while everyone was studying marketing and finance and these things, I was studying business ethics, and also how business integrates with society. At the time, corporate social responsibility – CSR – was one of the big focus areas. So that was my initial academic background. But then because of the tsunami, I had this personal crisis where I thought, do I go and do something interesting and different? Or do I take this corporate path? and I decided to do the more exciting thing and start working in this humanitarian world.

After retiring from the humanitarian world, I ended up working in the international organisation, part of the United Nations, working on climate change, mainly on policy, as well as on multi-lateral relations with regards to climate change. And then my path took me to mymizu!

When did you start becoming aware of the plastic issue?

This is a another story that starts back in 2018 when I was in Miyako-jima, a beautiful place in Okinawa. It’s like a tropical paradise. So one day I was going for a walk around the island when I just stumbled upon this huge pile of waste from the ocean. A lot of it was fishing gear, plastic bags but one of the main things that I saw was plastic bottles. And at that moment, I thought how crazy it was to have so many discarded plastic bottles in a country like Japan where we have some of the cleanest and safest water in the world. And so that was the moment where I thought, we have to do something about this. 

mymizu_beach_okinawa_plastic

Can you tell us more about the different aspects of the plastic issue?

It is a really complex issue and there are so many aspects indeed.

One is the systemic aspect. There is a system that is fundamentally broken, where we are producing so much more plastic than ever before, and it’s growing exponentially every year and at the same time, we are not really dealing with it.

So we take crude oil out of the ground, we produce plastic and many other products. And ultimately, we only recycle a small portion of that plastic. Just to give you one example, we consume 1 million PET bottle every single minute around the world. And we do not recycle about 90%.  So that means they are ending up in the landfill, being combusted or in the rivers and the oceans. 

There is so much conversation saying that we are good because everything gets recycled. But that is actually a very controversial idea and we actually need to address the fundamental issue and reduce our consumption as opposed to just hoping plastic gets recycled down the line.

Why is this issue not so talked about in Japan? Why do we have this image of Japan being so clean?

I am half Japanese, half English and I have lived here for more than half of my life. Actually, Japan is a very environmentally friendly country at heart.

Indeed, if you look at Japanese history such as the Edo period, everything was circular. Circular meaning, the resource usage was minimised, we only used what we need, and then when the products were reaching their end of life, they were somehow reintegrated or reused. It was a very eco-friendly society.

But as we began to prioritise economic growth, especially after the Second World War, as a result, people started using a lot more disposable as it was more convenient, thus moving to a potentially more environmentally unfriendly way of life.

In terms of plastic consumption, the conversation in Japan is not as high profile as in other countries, but there is a huge opportunity because fundamentally, Japan is an extremely environmentally friendly country.

With regards to recycling plastic there is lot of information out there, saying that Japan is extremely strong with recycling, which is true and false. To give you some statistics, the official recycling rate of single use plastic at the end of its life in Japan, is roughly 85% according to the the Ministry of Environment. While globally, it is only about 20%. So on the surface, this is great news, but actually, this is where it’s so important to understand the details, because if you open up the lid of this 85%, the majority of this recycled plastic is actually combusted. It is a process called thermal recycling, where you’re essentially burning plastic as fuel and you generate electricity through a turbine. So it’s actually very different to what the general consumer thinks of recycling, indeed, most of it doesn’t get turned into some beautiful new product. The majority is either burnt or exported to other countries such as China before 2018, and now countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and so on.

So I think the biggest challenge we have here is a mismatch of perception where we think that everything gets recycled, so we keep using plastic. But actually,  we have to take a step back and reduce our plastic consumption because recycling is not the solution. Some researches have even showed that having the option to recycle, is actually encouraging consumption.

Can you tell us a bit more about mymizu, the project you have co-founded and what this is all about?

After the trip in Okinawa in 2018, it took me a while to actually get started. I was away for work for a while and I kept making excuses. And then in early 2019, I finally started doing research and really getting into the details of addressing the plastic consumption issue. Following that, we started building the app in May or June 2019, and launched it in September. So we had three months working like crazy on the launch of the app! I was very lucky in that I found an engineer who is a very strong environmentalist and a great guy and who believed in the vision. So he developed the the app and made this all possible!

Our goal with mymizu is to create a new revolution and a systemic change in society, not just in Japan, but all over the world as well. What we do in a nutshell, is to help people shift away from plastic bottles and use their reusable bottles instead.

Thanks to our free app, people can identify free water refill stations in Japan and anywhere in the world, instead of buying PET water bottles. We have three types of refill stations, one is public areas such as park water or stations water fountain. The second one is private businesses such as Fab Cafe Tokyo, Hilton Hotel, Patagonia, where you can walk in, you don’t have to buy anything and you can refill your water bottle for free. And finally, we have natural spring water that you can find in many parts of Japan and even in Tokyo!

We actually probably have the world’s largest database on drinkable water. And the way this works is that it is a crowdsourced platform, which means anyone can add a refilling spot on the app. It is not a service that we provide, it is one that we create together as a community!

But our bigger mission is to create a movement. So mymizu is not just an app. That is why we also do lots of educational stuffs, partnerships with local governments and corporations. It has only been nine months since we have launched, but it has just been just an incredible journey so far!

As a social entreprise, what are your revenue streams? 

One of the ways we funded the very beginning of the project was through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. That was how we got the initial push to make this happen. 

What is really important is that we do not want to monetise the app, we will never make mymizu a paid service because we fundamentally believe that access to drinking water is a human right. We should never have to buy drinking water, especially in a country where we are surrounded by drinkable water. This is a classic story of corporations trying to make big money off people. If you talk to people 30 or 40 years ago, they said buying water wasn’t even a thing. So, this is just something that has been created by various marketing channels.

So our app is free, but we have three main revenue streams. One is corporate collaborations where we develop new projects with companies such as Audi Japan, Shizen Energy – one of Japan’s leading renewable energy provider – and also, more recently with IKEA, where we launched a campaign on World Environment Day. We are currently working on the launch of a campaign with a beverage company, which is quite exciting. Our second revenue stream is our own products such as mymizu bottles, that we sell on our online store but also at the cafes, restaurants and shops that are part of the mymizu network. Finally, we work with local governments as well. We have been very fortunate to do a pilot project with Kobe city and we are also currently working on two or three other partnerships with local governments. The way it works is that, we provide value by helping cities become more sustainable, and helping people to stay hydrated, especially during summer. On top of that, we also help them reduce their plastic waste disposal, which is very expensive. 

What is your vision for mymizu in the in the future? What do you want to achieve?

Our mission is to create a movement for sustainability, not just about plastic waste. And what is critical is that we want to make it a fun and positive conversation as, until now, the conversation around environment has been quite daunting. I’m not going to deny the fact that there is a huge problem going on. But what we believe with mymizu, is that to create systemic change for the 90% of people who don’t necessarily care, we have to provide hope and also bring people in through positive messaging.

We have been doing a lot of collaborations with governments and companies, and we are currently looking beyond just water. Water is a great starting point because everyone needs water to survive, but it’s also relatively limited in its impact. So we are currently developing a new project, which is not water related, but very similar in concept.

Besides, we are also looking at expanding globally. We actually have a team in Singapore right now and we hope to really take this to all countries around the world. Luckily, since we have launched, we’ve had many requests from Brazil, Spain and South Africa as they want to do the same thing in their countries.  And I think the Olympics next year will provide a really big opportunity for us to hopefully get more people engaged and spread the mymizu movement across the globe! 

In the last eight months, we’ve done over 100 workshops, talks and seminars, at schools, universities, companies, etc. And that’s, again, part of the bigger mission to create a movement for change. 

How do people perceive tap water in Japan?

Compared to a lot of other countries around the world, Japan has some of the safest and arguably tastiest water. To give some perspective, we are working closely with the waterworks department in Kobe right now and the tap water standards are extremely high. It’s actually stricter than bottled water.

For example, they check something like 58 criteria such as radioactivity, lead etc. to see if the city water is safe, while for bottled water, it is not as strict and only 18 criteria get checked on average. So in theory, tap water should actually be much safer. But part of the challenge is the perception people may have towards tap water and we really have to address that issue.

What do you feel is the real barrier for people to ditch plastic bottles in Japan?

I think it is really about habits. For example the smoking rate has gone down significantly in many countries and we are seeing societal shifts against certain behaviours that were acceptable in the past. So I would say, what needs to really happen for this to become a wide scale movement is more engagement from the medias. Media plays such a huge role in this, but also pop culture. What is great to see is that more and more influencers are starting to speak out about the plastic issue. So these are the kind of things that we need, as well as government regulations.

So I fundamentally think that we need two sides of the story. We need the top down government incentives and regulations and we also need this bottom up societal drive to change. But the most important thing for us at mymizu is to make it an appealing and fun process!

Having worked in this environmental space for a while, I noticed it is so difficult to engage people. We are all so busy, we have our lives. And honestly, when you start talking about CO2 emissions, ocean acidification, and coral reefs dying, I think people switch off. So if we can engage people as a first step, just through thinking about plastic bottles, that is the beginning of a much bigger journey for systemic change, which is what we really need. So many people ask me, you guys are looking into reducing plastic? And I said, No, that’s only our first step. This is how we engage people in the conversation. And from there we can then take it even further and start a movement.

What resources (books, documentaries, podcasts, etc.) would you recommend on ecology?

Ressources in Japan:

Documentaries:

  • Cowspiracy: wake-up call as to how individual actions are affecting society on an environmental level

Books:

Podcast:

  • Outrage + Optimism by Christina Figuerez, the power woman behind the 2015 Paris agreement

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