Last month, news outlets all over the world reported on the discovery of a plastic shopping bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench near the Philippines, the deepest point in the Earth’s oceans. The discovery was made by a group of Japanese researchers studying images from deep-sea exploration projects, and what’s chilling about the finding is that it was from footage recorded in 1998, which likely means even more plastic has accumulated at the bottom of the sea in the meantime. In spite of the Japanese angle, the story wasn’t picked up domestically with the same measure of alarm as it was overseas.
That’s especially odd because Japan is surrounded by ocean, and the problem of plastics in the sea has become a topic of intense concern. One significant wake-up call was China’s announcement that it would no longer accept imports of waste plastic for recycling. In response, the European Union has proposed much stricter standards for one-use plastic packaging and paraphernalia, including a possible ban on plastic straws and stirrers. Japan has announced no similar countermeasures even though China’s move affects Japan more directly. Japan exported 72 percent of its waste plastic to China in 2017, according to the May 9 installment of the NHK in-depth news program “Close-up Gendai,” and will now either have to find a new destination for this refuse or handle it on its own.
“Close-up Gendai” starts by citing a BBC report that states how China’s announcement has sent shock waves throughout the world. The NHK announcer says that so far there has been no appreciable effect on Japan, but storage for plastic waste has reached saturation levels in many places. China’s standard of living has improved greatly in recent decades and the damaging effects of plastic consumption on the environment have gained more weight than the “demand” for waste plastic as a “resource.” China means to clean up its act, and thus will no longer be the dumping ground for the world’s plastic.
Despite the dire implications, NHK sounded hopeful about the future. The term “shigen gomi” (“recyclable garbage”) was used commonly throughout the program when referring to waste plastic in Japan, with the twin countermeasures being commerce and technology.
With regard to the former, Thailand was mentioned as a candidate for some of Japan’s plastic waste, and the show spotlighted a Chinese-Japanese entrepreneur who is looking for business opportunities in Thailand for accepting plastic. A Thai bureaucrat mentions, however, that at the moment they can take this waste, but that soon they will be overloaded, implying that, like China, Thailand aims to move away from its status as a developing country.
There is a temporal limitation to any strategy that involves shipping waste to other countries, and as Tohoku University professor Yu Jeong-soo, who studies the matter, tells the announcer in the studio, shipping costs will become prohibitive when Southeast Asia no longer accepts such shipments. That leaves technology as a likely way out, or so NHK contends, which means more effective recycling efforts and, in turn, a larger range of products that can be made from waste plastic.
Mention is made of recycled plastic as fuel for paper mills but, with more domestic businesses going paperless, that solution has no future. The local government of Miyagi Prefecture subsidizes enterprises that convert plastic waste into something else. Monetary gain is the incentive, and some companies have created household and industrial products from recycled plastic waste, though no one notes that since these items are plastic themselves, they will someday be waste that once again has to be processed.
The elephant in the room is finally addressed by Yu, who states that society has become too dependent on recycling. If this statement sounds counterintuitive — recycling has always been a fundamental activity of the environmental movement — it’s because the show ended before there was any discussion of the statement’s ramification, which is that the banning of plastic packaging and paraphernalia may be the only solution in the long run. The gist of NHK’s presentation was that Japan has good plastic recycling programs and yet no capacity to store and process any more, especially now that the Chinese are out of the picture. What will become of the accumulating surplus?
The mantra for responsible waste handling has always been “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and recycle is third in line for a reason. In Japan, it’s portrayed as a noble civic undertaking. On many local government homepages you will find a video explaining the locality’s recycling activities, with PET bottles and plastic bags being turned into consumer items or even reduced to their constituent elements. Some local governments do discourage the use of plastics, usually in the area of reji-bukuro (plastic bags given out at stores), but outright bans are extremely rare.
The recycling movement does have its detractors, the most controversial being professor Kunihiko Takeda of Chubu University, a media pundit known for his iconoclastic stances on everything from marijuana decriminalization (for) to recycling (against). Takeda’s arguments are often based on economic efficacy. Plastic is made from by-products of petroleum refining that would otherwise go to waste. Recycling plastic costs much more than making plastic from scratch and requires lots of energy, water and manpower.
Takeda thinks it’s better to bury or burn plastic waste, and some governments agree with him, though obviously the only real solution is reduction. Just as we have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels to achieve a future that’s energy sustainable, we need to move away from polyethylene and polypropylene to restore our environment to a state that’s survivable.
You can’t rely on market forces to solve the plastics problem — only rigorous public policy can do that.