Suginami looks to puncture plastic-bag use

Officials, stores join forces to promote environment-friendly shopping


Mikiko Sasaki, a housewife who lives near a Summit supermarket in Takaido-higashi, Suginami Ward, Tokyo, takes her own shopping bag whenever she visits the store.

“Plastic shopping bags end up being just garbage bags, and it’s a waste,” she declared.

Those who shop at the store are awarded two shopping-card points whenever they decline a cashier’s offer of a plastic bag.

“Customers (who decline plastic bags) are increasing little by little,” said Akira Yoneda, deputy manager of the store.

The supermarket’s policy is one example of a local drive to reduce the use of plastic bags following the March enactment of a related ordinance by the Suginami Ward Assembly.

Yet the ordinance, which would see the ward impose a 5 yen levy on each plastic bag handed out at stores, has not actually been put into force.

This is because a supplementary resolution of the ordinance states the specific date on which it will take effect will be decided only after other efforts to curb use of plastic bags have been considered by the mayor and the assembly.

Ward officials say, therefore, that should the ward succeed in curbing the use of plastic bags by other means, the tax may not be introduced at all.

Many environmentally conscious consumers welcome the ward’s effort to reduce use of plastic bags and possible introduction of the tax, the revenues from which would be used to finance environmental projects.

However, many store owners have voiced concern that the tax would increase their financial burden.

They also fear it would eventually drive customers to shop in neighboring wards.

Stores have thus started cooperating with the ward office in an effort to slash plastic-bag distribution.

Although these efforts appear to have made some headway, ward officials and shopkeepers say there are still hurdles to overcome.

An estimated 190 million polyethylene shopping bags are used in the ward every year.

According to the ward, around 3.5 million liters of crude oil are needed to produce this number of bags.

The bags also accounted for 4 percent of the ward’s 25,443 tons of incombustible garbage in fiscal 2001, it said.

After the ward assembly passed the ordinance, local supermarkets and retailers teamed up with the ward to create a council in May tasked with cutting the use of plastic bags.

The council is seeking to boost the number of people who use their own shopping bags to 20 percent of all shoppers by the end of next July, and to 60 percent by the end of July 2007.

To monitor the effect of its various campaigns, the council conducted a survey last July on 66,000 shoppers at local supermarkets, convenience stores and retailers.

The results showed that shoppers who used their own bags and declined the offer of plastic bags accounted for 24.1 percent of the people surveyed.

“The success of reducing the use of plastic bags is the result of efforts of a lot of people,” Suginami Mayor Hiroshi Yamada told a general meeting of the council earlier this month.

Since January, ward officials have distributed fliers appealing to consumers to refrain from using plastic bags.

They have also adorned neighborhoods in the ward with campaign posters, banners and flags.

Tatsusuke Tokuda, who represents an umbrella organization of local store owners’ associations, said the organization has sold 20,000 cloth shopping bags produced by the group. He called on the owners of member stores to ask their customers to use their own bags.

“We need courage to ask customers, and shoppers also need courage (to say they don’t need a plastic bag),” he said.

Meanwhile, the Japan Chain Stores Association decided in June to designate the 5th, 15th, and 25th days of every month “No plastic shopping bag days” at its nine member supermarket chains operating in Suginami Ward.

On Oct. 1, the association introduced a new nationwide system under which shoppers may show cashiers a card indicating that they don’t need a plastic bag.

Toshio Asakawa, who works within the economic affairs section of the ward office, attributed the drive’s initial success to the cooperation of the council members.

He added, however, that the ward must seek cooperation from other stores that are not members of the council.

Industry sources also view the campaign as a limited gambit, especially with regard to convenience stores.

Since October 2001, the Japan Franchise Association, has displayed posters at its 11 member convenience store chains in Suginami Ward bearing the phrase, “Please let us know if you don’t need plastic bags.”

But Tomoyuki Kimura, chairman of the association’s environment committee, said it will be difficult for convenience stores to cut the use of plastic bags any further.

Whereas supermarket shoppers often make round trips from home, most convenience store customers drop by on the way to their workplaces, schools or homes, Kimura said.

“Plastic shopping bags can also be used for garbage bags, and there is also an argument that we should not get rid of such convenient items,” he said.

In another effort to boost shoppers’ use of their own bags and lure shoppers back to local stores, the ward has invited local stores to join a coupon system scheduled to take effect in November.

The system will see shoppers who decline the offer of a plastic bag awarded one coupon. Shoppers who save 25 coupons will be able to exchange them for a product worth 100 yen.

The ward and shop owners will split the cost of managing the coupons, which are effectively valued at 4 yen each.

Some store owners are unhappy with this scenario.

“The system will increase the burden on my business, which has already been hit hard by the prolonged economic slump,” said Hiroaki Kawaguchi, owner of a dry food store near JR Asagaya Station.

So far, Suginami is the only ward to have passed an ordinance of this kind, but the drive to curb the use of plastic bags is gaining momentum nationwide.

Since the ordinance was enacted, several local government officials have contacted the ward office inquiring about the tax and other bag-curbing efforts.

A local organization in Kochi Prefecture invited Kochi Gov. Daijiro Hashimoto to be an adviser and launched in May a campaign backed by six supermarket chains to reduce plastic shopping bag use.

The money saved by curbing the distribution of plastic shopping bags among customers will be used to fund tree-planting projects in the village of Gohoku.

Twenty-seven prefectures have designated October as a month to promote environment-friendly shopping.

Meanwhile, similar projects are already under way in other countries.

Peter Pedersen, a Danish environmentalist who runs an environmental consulting business in Japan, said stores in Denmark charge the equivalent of between 25 yen and 35 yen per plastic bag.

“When I heard of Suginami’s tax on the bag, I was wondering why people are so alarmed by just 5 yen,” Pedersen said.

In Ireland, the government started a levy equivalent to about 18 yen per bag in March.