The big problem with the little soy sauce fish

The iconic soy sauce fish packets used with takeaway sushi are recognised throughout the world for their cute shape & convenient design. The containers, called shoyu-tai (soy-sauce snapper) in Japanese, were invented in the 1950s to replace glass or ceramic bottles, and quickly became a popular way to provide a single squirt of soy sauce with takeaway sushi. There are hundreds of different shapes, sizes and colours, so many that a Japanese scientist created a scientific taxonomy populated entirely with the different species and subspecies of plastic fish.

Unfortunately, along with other single-use plastics like straws and coffee cups, the packets are quickly tossed and difficult to recycle, so they end up clogging landfills or floating in the ocean. The tiny fish are a powerful symbol of a convenience culture that has had a tragic impact on our environment, particularly our oceans – a sad irony given their shape.

They’re a waste

The tiny containers hold just 4mL of soy sauce. Eating just a few pieces of sushi might require multiple fish packets, each with a separate lid. They’re impossible to refill, so best-case they go into the trash and end up in landfill, worst case they get tossed straight on the ground. Beyond the environmental implications, this is a huge waste of energy and resources for a simple convenience. 

They can’t be easily recycled

While they are made of a recyclable plastic, polyethylene, the packets are so small they fall out of recycling bins, trucks and can get stuck in sorting equipment. If they do reach the recycling stage, the fish packets are contaminated with soy sauce and other food, and made from mixed plastics, so the resulting plastic is less valuable and useful because it isn’t pure.

They pollute the ocean

The small packets are light and trap air, so they tend to get washed into drains, streams, then rivers and ultimately into the ocean. They float on ocean currents and travel incredible distances, slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces until they eventually become microscopic particles that enter our food and water supplies.

They take 500 years to break down

Polyethylene is not biodegradable so the packets that are used for just seconds will remain in the environment for hundreds of years. Even ‘compostable’ plastics like Polylactic Acid (PLA) need to be composted in the right conditions and can still be harmful to wildlife before they break down. 

They look like food to marine life

Tragically, to seabirds, fish and other marine life, the packets look just like their normal food. Once ingested the plastics get stuck in their gut, causing the animals to slowly starve to death. Other plastic objects ensnare marine life, causing them disfiguring injuries or slowly drowning them as they struggle to escape. 

We can design better

Ultimately these packets are a bad design, and they simply do not need to exist. There are many ways to avoid single-use plastics and the small convenience does not offset the massive environmental cost. We believe that better design – of individual products and entire product life-cycles – is necessary to eliminate plastic pollution. We need to completely reject single-use items and move toward a circular economy.

Read more about how to stop using single-use plastic with sushi .

We created Light Soy to be treasured and last, rather than being trashed. We hope Light Soy will highlight the big problem with single-use plastic and the impact design can have on people and the planet. We have committed to removing 3 kilograms of ocean-bound plastic from the environment for every Light Soy lamp sold.