National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

A Japanese city plans to ban plastic shopping bags, but can it push its larger neighbors to follow suit?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

International concern over the environmental damage done by the use of plastic in various forms is now the topic of political and economic discussions across the planet. Dealing with plastic waste, especially in the ocean, is one of the long-term issues that Japan has promised to address at this year’s Group of 20 summits. In the meantime, local governments, NGOs and business groups from Hokkaido to Okinawa are hosting seminars, discussions and conducting public awareness campaigns on the dangers of plastic waste like never before.

But the kind of tough legislation that actually bans the use of certain types of plastic consumer products has long been a step too far for most local governments. However last month, Takahiro Katsuragawa, the mayor of Kameoka, a city of 89,000 in Kyoto Prefecture, announced plans for a local ordinance that would ban the use of those ubiquitous single-use plastic shopping bags at the check-out counters of local supermarkets.

What raised a lot of eyebrows, however, was that Katsuragawa also went a step further, calling on surrounding cities like Kyoto to pass a similar ordinance in order to battle the growing problem of discarded plastic bags that find their way into the rivers, streams, and waterways that connect Kameoka and Kyoto.

The challenge appears to have caught Kyoto Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa a bit off guard. In a carefully worded reply earlier this month, Kadokawa, generally seen as a very “green” mayor in Japan who supports strong local and national environmental policies and renewable energy, and has traveled to United Nations climate change conferences to support international efforts for global greenhouse gas reductions, said he understood reducing plastic garbage was an international issue. But he indicated he was not in favor of a mayor just suddenly pushing for a resolution that bans plastic bags.

If passed by the city assembly, Kameoka’s local ordinance would go into effect by early 2021. It would ban the use of plastic bags at about 760 small supermarkets and convenience stores within the city. Customers would be encouraged to bring their own eco-friendly bag and given paper bags if they don’t have one. Stores that give out plastic bags could be fined.

Ordinances banning plastic bags can be found in a number of G20 countries. But Kameoka believes their ordinance, which has the support of most of the current members of the city assembly, would be the first of its kind in Japan. The election for the Kameoka Municipal Assembly takes place Jan. 27 and the plastic bag ban is expected to be one of the main issues for voters.

Can Kameoka lead the way for other municipalities? It would be nice to think so. Many mayors and local assemblies are only too aware of the damage done to their natural environments by discarded plastic waste, especially plastic bags. But most would also rather use all means to encourage voters to change their habits voluntarily rather than upset them by passing legislation that forces change upon them.

That appears to be Mayor Kadokawa’s current strategy for Kyoto, and he suddenly looks less “green” than he did a few weeks ago. For anyone, tourist or resident, foreign or Japanese, who is appalled by the overuse of plastic bags and plastic wrapping in Japanese stores, no matter where they are located, Kameoka’s efforts are to be applauded.

One hopes that Kyoto’s political leaders, who can sound smug and pretentious in their public lectures about the city’s green image, are smart enough to take the hint from Kameoka and courageous enough to enact their own ordinance banning plastic waste sooner rather than later. If the home of the Kyoto Protocol and one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations makes the effort, it might convince other cities in Japan to do the same.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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