KAMEOKA, KYOTO PREF. – Plastic pollution in the ocean has become one of the world’s most urgent environmental problems. Footage of vast fields of floating plastic debris between California and Hawaii — now commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — have driven home the gravity of the problem, with scientists and environmental groups warning that the colossal oceanic mess imperils the ecosystem and human health.
The issue is so pressing that it will be a key topic for discussion at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June.
And yet, the Japanese government has been reluctant to take strong legal measures seen in many other countries. At last year’s G7 summit in Canada, Japan and the United States refused to sign the Ocean Plastics Charter that was endorsed by the other G7 members. The agreement would have committed Japan to the reuse, recycling, and collection of all plastic products by 2030. Tokyo insists it needs more time to assess the policy’s economic impact.
But while Tokyo dithers, municipal and other governments in Japan are taking matters into their own hands.
Kameoka — a nearly 30-minute train ride from the city of Kyoto — is one such municipality. While Kyoto is where a landmark 1997 treaty on reducing greenhouse gas was signed, neighboring Kameoka is drawing national attention for its efforts to curtail plastic pollution.
If all goes as planned, Kameoka will be the first city in Japan with an ordinance banning plastic shopping bags by the time the Tokyo Olympics kick off next year.
In Kameoka, concern about plastic waste is nothing new. As Mayor Takahiro Katsuragawa explains, it’s been a visible problem for years that has impacted a key sector of the local economy — tourism.
Hozu River cruises carry tourists by traditional flat-bottom wooden boats from Kameoka to Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, a distance of about 18 km, he noted.
“The boats pass through the winding river gorges famous for their spectacular views, especially in the autumn,” Katsuragawa said. “But when it rains or there is typhoon flooding, plastic trash washes up on the river banks,” he said, suggesting a view that is not exactly pristine.
As the problem grew acute in the 1990s, local efforts began to clean up the waste along the river. Public awareness rose over the years, and Kameoka’s involvement in tackling plastic waste broadened to a larger scale.
Despite being an inland city, Kameoka hosted a summit on ocean waste in 2012 and began local awareness campaigns on the problem of plastic garbage from inland rivers ending up in the ocean.
But realizing that more needed to be done, the city announced late last year it would enact an ordinance to ban the use of plastic shopping bags.
Katsuragawa says the measure is part of a broader city effort, outlined in a declaration made at the same time last year, to realize a goal of zero single-use, nonrecyclable plastic waste by 2030.
“In the next fiscal year (which begins on April 1), we’ll be charging for plastic bags. Then, next year, just before the Tokyo Olympics, we’ll pass the ordinance on plastic garbage, especially plastic bags. The problem with plastic bags is that they are too convenient, and the result is that they create a burden on the environment,” he said.
While there is broad local support for the measure, there is also some opposition, said Sumio Nishiguchi, a Kameoka assemblyman.
“Some local companies are worried whether the new ordnance will negatively affect their business. But I think the majority of people support the idea,” he said.
The mayor says the city was not thinking about punitive measures for noncompliance.
“The ordinance is about redoubling local efforts to reduce plastic,” Katsuragawa said. “Voluntary efforts are necessary. Through participation and cooperation, people and local businesses will gain more understanding about the environment and the problems of plastic.”
Kameoka’s plans drew praise from other local governments. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike called it a meaningful challenge, though she stopped short of saying whether Tokyo would try to enact a similar ordinance.
Last month, Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui and Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura jointly declared a plan to eventually eliminate single-use plastics through further reduction, reuse and recycling efforts.
Osaka will also encourage replacing single-use plastics with paper products. The declaration, which has no exact target date, calls for the funding of more cleanup activities around public parks, roads and riverbanks, and for increased efforts to reduce and recycle plastic bottles.
“With the G20 summit and the hosting of the 2025 World Expo, we have the goal of realizing a sustainable society,” Matsui said.
Kameoka and the city and prefecture of Osaka were not the first governments to make such declarations. Last September, Kanagawa Prefecture announced efforts to do away with plastic straws and bags, with an ambitious goal of eliminating all plastic waste by 2030.
Kanagawa’s move came a month after a juvenile blue whale that had washed up on a Kamakura beach was found to have ingested plastic.
As of early February, 79 businesses, 10 organizations and three schools in the prefecture had pledged to meet the goals.
A similar declaration was issued in Kamakura last October, with additional plans to encourage tourists to use their own bags and to take their garbage with them when they leave.
From a local perspective, these pledges and efforts to reduce plastic are certainly better than nothing. But with the scale of the problem being national and global in scope, strengthened measures on both levels are urgently needed.
This was made clear in a United Nations Environment Program report in late 2018. The U.N. had previously noted that the amount of plastic waste produced worldwide hit 300 million tons in 2015. At least 8 million tons finds its way into the ocean annually.
The 2018 UNEP report estimated that up to 5 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, plastic litter costs its tourism, fishing and shipping industries $1.3 billion a year, in the form of cleanup costs and various forms of damage.
“In Asia, the enforcement of regulations has often been poor, and single-use plastic bags continue to be widely used and mismanaged despite prohibitions and levies,” the report said.
On the other hand, the U.N. report gave good marks to Japan, even though the country has no ban on single-use plastics.
“Thanks to a very effective waste management system and a high degree of social consciousness, the country (Japan) accounts for relatively limited leakages of single-use plastics in the environment,” the report added.
Sadao Harada is the head of Project Hozugawa, a nonprofit established in 2007 that has led the effort to clean up the Hozu River and push for the Kameoka ordinance. The result has been a dramatic decrease in the amount of plastic garbage picked up by volunteers.
In January 2011, the amount collected filled 190 20-liter trash bags. By August 2016, clean-up crews only had to fill 10 bags.
While Kameoka’s ban on bag use is a step in the right direction, Harada is puzzled there is no national ban. So far, more than 60 countries have introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastics.
“Of course, there are a lot of issues and concerns about how forcing people to stop using plastic bags will affect their lives,” Harada said. “But the decision-making in Japan is way too slow. Other countries, and American states like Hawaii, have been able to enact bans. Japan needs to make more of an effort.”
There is also the question of what to do about PET bottles, and the kinds of efforts that should be made locally and nationally to curb their use.
Efforts to ban PET bottles could be even more of a political, economic, and bureaucratic headache than the bag issue, given their widespread usage and corporate worries about cheap, convenient environment-friendly alternatives.
Last year, the All Japan River Litter Network, a Tokyo-based web of environmental groups, surveyed plastic garbage at 409 locations on rivers across the country for eight months. They found 44,506 PET bottles and 16,935 discarded shopping bags. From those figures, the network estimates there could be as many as 40 million PET bottles polluting the nation’s riverbanks.
In 2017, the Council for PET Bottle Recycling estimated shipments at nearly 22.7 billion, with a recycling rate of 84.8 percent.
The problem is yet another that must be tackled if broader efforts to reduce plastic waste are to succeed. Hiroko Ito, of the All Japan River Litter Network, offers some simple, common sense advice.
“Stop doing things like putting out PET bottles at conferences. It’s important to decrease their use by first doing what you can,” she said.
But the general attitude among policymakers is to go one step at a time to reach a consensus. The political consensus in Kameoka, at least, now appears to favor banning plastic bags.
At the same time, with the G20 summit in Osaka this year taking place amid rising international awareness of the issue, expectations that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government will take bold action are higher than last year when Japan shunned the Ocean Plastics Charter.
“How will Japan deal with environmental issues at the G20 summit and what kind of action will the leaders take toward ocean pollution? Those are key questions,” Katsuragawa said.
In the meantime, more governments anxious to deal with plastic waste problems in their own backyards may follow Kameoka’s example and issue their own declarations on how they plan to deal with it.
Yet while such admirable efforts may be beneficial for local ecosystems, the severity of the problem, as UNEP pointed out, is such that they still represent a first step and require support from tougher national and international efforts to save the world’s oceans from drowning in plastic.
Beyond Tokyo is a new series that focuses on regional developments and events of national importance elsewhere in Japan.