Is environmental protection in the (pay-per) bag?

To cut waste, retailers set to charge shoppers for plastic but skeptics doubt effects

by Akemi Nakamura

Like many other customers at the OK Jumbo Sagan supermarket, Kumiko Fujimoto saves at least 6 yen by taking her own bag to the Tokyo store.

Ever since the 3 percent consumption tax was introduced in 1989, OK Inc., which operates the outlet in Ota Ward and 39 other locations in the Kanto region, has charged its customers 6 yen for each plastic shopping bag to help keep prices low.

“Once you get into the habit . . . you find that it’s no trouble having your own bag with you,” the 48-year-old housewife said after a day’s shopping. “I’ve started bringing my bags to other shops. It’s good for the environment.”

Fujimoto counts herself as one of the relatively few environment-conscious consumers in Japan, where retailers routinely provide free plastic shopping bags to customers. According to the Japan Chain Stores Association, a trade group that includes supermarket chains, only 13 percent of customers at its member stores refuse plastic bags.

The practice of charging for plastic bags is now spreading; some supermarkets, anticipating the revised Containers and Packaging Recycling Law, which takes effect April 1, are introducing a fee system for bags.

Affecting about 750 major retailers, the revision will require those who use 50 tons of containers or packaging materials annually, including plastic bags and trays, PET bottles and wrapping paper, to accelerate their efforts to reduce such materials by charging for plastic bags, giving cloth bags to consumers or taking other steps.

The law will also oblige the retailers to report their measures to the government every year. Businesses that fail and then defy a government order to shape up face having their names publicized and getting slapped with a 1 million yen fine.

Environmentalists, however, complain the law doesn’t go far enough. In the view of some, retailers should be forced to charge for plastic shopping bags as an effective means of cutting down on plastic consumption, which in turn would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s a shame that the revised law doesn’t ban the free distribution of plastic shopping bags,” said Yachiyo Nakai, a member of a citizens’ group in Tokyo working on recycling, reusing and reducing containers and packaging products.

According to the Japan Polyolefin Film Industry Trade Association, roughly 30.5 billion plastic shopping bags — about 300 per consumer — were used in Japan in 2002. Each one costs 2 yen to 3 yen to make and the production requires 18 ml of oil.

These bags account for about 10 percent of household waste, in terms of volume, according to the Environment Ministry. In fiscal 2003, households generated 34.66 million tons of garbage.

Nakai said banning the free distribution of plastic bags would help raise awareness of the environment and prod consumers to change their waste-producing lifestyles.

Ireland began levying the equivalent of a 20 yen to 21 yen tax on plastic shopping bags in 2003, while South Korea and Taiwan charge up to 7 yen for a plastic bag, according to the Environment Ministry.

In response to the revised law, some supermarket chains recently started charging for plastic shopping bags on an experimental basis.

In January, Summit Inc.’s Narita Higashi store in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, and Aeon Co.’s Jusco Higashiyama Nijo outlet in Kyoto began selling plastic bags for 5 yen each. Izumiya Co., a major supermarket chain in Osaka, plans to introduce a similar fee system at its Kofuudai outlet in Toyono, Osaka Prefecture, in March and its Katsurazaka outlet in Kyoto in April.

Some local governments are trying to take the initiative to promote the move. The Sado Municipal Government in Niigata Prefecture is now asking all retailers on Sado Island to charge for plastic bags starting April 1. Nagoya is considering making some wards model areas that ban the free distribution of plastic bags.

These activities can move consumers. About 80 percent of customers at the Summit and Aeon stores with the fee system now bring their own bags, according to their operating companies.

However, any attempt to turn this into a nationwide movement faces an uphill battle.

Many retailers are reluctant to stop giving away plastic bags out of fear that failing to do so would drive customers away, experts say.

A Summit spokeswoman admitted that the Narita Higashi outlet saw a decline in sales during the first week after it introduced the fee system on Jan. 15.

Koji Makiguchi, a spokesman for Izumiya, said the retailer may lose some customers at its two stores that will introduce the bag fee as price competition among supermarkets continues to heat up.

“We selected the two stores whose customers we think are more environment-conscious than those at other outlets,” he said.

The Japan Chain Stores Association is calling on the government to oblige all retailers to charge for plastic bags through legislation for fair competition.

Convenience stores, however, note their customers’ purchasing style is different from that of supermarkets.

The Japan Franchise Association, an industry group of convenience store chains and other retailers, said convenience stores cannot expect customers to bring their own bags because their sales are generally based on impulse.

The association hopes to reduce the number of free plastic bags its shops provide by 35 percent by fiscal 2010 from 2000 levels by asking customers whether they want a plastic bag.

But Yasoi Yasuda, a professor of environment policy studies at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, said simply obliging retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags presents a problem: There is no law regulating how the proceeds from selling plastic bags to customers will be used.

Aeon and Summit said such proceeds would be used to protect the environment in the areas where the stores are located.

“If charging for plastic bags is legislated now, consumers will have to shoulder more of the burden (to protect the environment), while businesses can decrease their burden,” he said, adding that levying a tax on plastic bags is best.