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Japanese government panel begins discussions on reducing plastic waste

Kyodo

A government panel began discussions Friday on setting a strategy to sharply cut plastic waste amid rising international concern over the marine pollution it causes.

Japan, which produces the largest amount of plastic waste per capita after the United States, has lagged behind other countries in taking steps to combat ocean pollution by reining in the use of plastics such as disposable containers and shopping bags.

The subcommittee of the Central Environment Council aims to draw up a draft strategy including numerical goals by the end of this year.

“In order to lead the world in tackling the plastic waste issue, I expect the panel to compile an effective strategy,” Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa said at the meeting.

A panel member pointed out that Japan has been slow to introduce measures such as banning the sale and use of plastic shopping bags. Another member said it would be important to offer Japan’s advanced technology to other countries dealing with the problem.

The subcommittee is chaired by Shinichi Sakai, a professor at Kyoto University, and includes stakeholders such as the Japan Plastics Industry Federation.

From the next meeting, the panel will study how to efficiently recover and recycle disposable plastic items, promote bioplastics that are derived from biomass sources and easily decomposable in nature, and help developing countries tackle the issue.

Plastic items that are dumped in the ocean are broken down by waves and ultraviolet rays to become microplastics. Microbeads widely used for cosmetics and toothpaste also constitute such waste.

Microplastics are difficult to collect once they enter the water, and tend to absorb harmful chemicals and accumulate inside fish, birds and other animals as they make their way up the food chain.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated that the annual inflow of plastic waste into the oceans in 2010 stood at 4 million to 12 million tons, greatly affecting the marine ecosystem and environment, as well as damaging fishing and tourism industries.

In June during a summit in Canada, five members of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and the European Union endorsed the Ocean Plastic Charter with the aim of making all plastic products reusable, recyclable and recoverable by 2030.

Along with the U.S., Japan refused to sign it, citing “lack of preparedness.”

Later in June, the Diet passed a bill calling on businesses such as toothpaste makers to stop using microplastics in their products and make efforts to reduce use of plastic pieces measuring up to 5 millimeters. But the legislation lacks penalties for those that do not comply.

Apart from the national policy, some domestic companies have started to take proactive, voluntary measures. Japanese family restaurant operator Skylark Holdings Co. Ltd. announced Friday a plan to eliminate single-use plastic straws from its stores in and outside of the country by 2020.

The Japan Cosmetic Industry Association urged its members in 2016 to restrict use of microplastics, while Oriental Land Co., operator of the Tokyo Disney Resort, began using shopping bags made of bioplastic derived from sugarcane ethanol in 2015.