KARUIZAWA, NAGANO PREF. - When international delegates arrived at Karuizawa Station for the Group of 20 environment ministers’ meeting earlier this month, they were greeted by local schoolchildren, bilingual volunteers — and a wild boar the size of an elephant.
Constructed from various forms of household waste, including garbage bags, the art piece, sent from Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture, was not exactly fearsome. But the message was clear — the world needs to tackle the problem of plastic waste.
The issue, especially that of marine plastic waste, was one of the key discussions at the Karuizawa summit, and it will be again at the G20 leaders’ summit, which kicks off in Osaka on Friday.
During the meeting, which was also attended by energy ministers, each country committed to gathering and sharing their data on ocean plastic waste with an eye toward establishing international best practices to deal with the problem.
“Innovative and breakthrough technologies should be created to deal with plastic waste,” Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said, citing the need for member countries to collaborate with non-G20 countries, local governments, nongovernmental organizations and academia.
Over the past few years, the problem of plastic waste, especially floating patches of plastic garbage in the ocean, has become the subject of intense international debate as the world seeks to rein in the use of plastic.
Each year, nearly 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced and nearly 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans, according to the U.N. Environment Program.
This includes microplastic pollution — pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters that often end up inside fish, birds and other animals and then make their way up the food chain, posing significant risks to human health.
Amid increasing international awareness, Canada announced on June 10 that it will ban single-use plastics, including straws, cotton swabs and drink stirrers, as early as 2021. In March, the European Parliament also voted to ban single-use plastics, paving the way for it to come into force by 2021 in all EU member states.
Despite calls in and out of the country to enact a similar ban, Japan, saying it is not yet ready for that step, has instead opted for a gradual shift toward curbing plastic waste.
At the end of May, the government adopted a new domestic strategy to deal with public waste with an emphasis on reducing, reusing and recycling plastic products. The goals include a 25 percent reduction in single-use plastic by 2030, reusing and recycling 60 percent of plastic container packages by the same year, and 100 percent reuse and recycle of discarded plastic by 2035.
The move came a year after Japan and the United States — the two countries with the highest amounts of plastic waste per capita in the world — were heavily criticized domestically and abroad for refusing to sign an agreement at the Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Canada to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the ocean and cut down on single-use plastics such as plastic straws, bottles and caps.
The charter set a target of ensuring, in cooperation with industrial sectors, 100 percent reuse, recycling and collection of all plastic products by 2030. Tokyo claims it did not sign the charter because the country was not ready for tight regulations on plastic, and the impact to people’s lives needed to be assessed first.
But local governments like that of the city of Kameoka in Kyoto Prefecture have taken the lead, enacting a ban on plastic bags. From next April, all stores there will be required to charge for single-use plastic bags.
Prior to 2018, Japan had shipped much of its plastic waste to China for disposal.
Japan produces about 9 million tons of plastic waste annually and in 2017 it exported about 1.4 million tons of plastic waste, half of which was shipped to China, according to the Finance Ministry.
But at the end of 2017, China banned plastic waste imports, forcing Japan to come up with different policy measures to deal with its plastic waste disposal.
“Up to now, there are cases where plastic waste is exported to China. It’s quite natural that the country that generates the plastic waste should recycle and reprocess it,” Harada told reporters at the Karuizawa summit.
Like other countries, plastic waste that ends up in Japan’s marine ecosystems is also a huge problem.
The nation collected about 3.3 million tons of marine waste in fiscal 2016, the majority of which was artificial items such as plastic bottles and bags, according to the Environment Ministry.
Earlier this month, the Union of Kansai Governments, a coalition of 12 local prefectures and cities including Osaka, estimated there are 3 million plastic bags and 6.1 million pieces of plastic bags in all of Osaka Bay, based on a survey conducted on a small area of the bay near Kansai airport, where most G20 leaders will arrive for the summit.
“The bags are encroaching on the homes of sea-floor life, and we’re seeing huge damage to the fishing industry,” said Sadao Harada, a professor at Osaka University of Commerce who led the survey.
Awareness of the problem of plastic waste is rising in Japan. According to a Foreign Ministry diplomacy survey involving 1,000 people conducted in March on the issues to be discussed at the G20 summit, ocean plastic waste was the top concern among the respondents (49.3 percent), followed by climate change and energy (48.1 percent) and the international economy and trade (42.4 percent).
On the international front, Japan has stepped up its leadership efforts. With Norway, it supported an amendment to the Basel Convention, which regulates the international shipment of waste, including plastic waste.
The amendment, passed unanimously last month, makes it all but impossible for countries to export their plastic waste and calls for strengthening domestic recycling and disposal methods, especially through the use of new technologies.
In coordinating with Norway on international environmental diplomacy, hosting the G20 environment ministers’ meeting and approving a new domestic plastic waste policy, Japan has attempted to send a message that, while it won’t ban single-use plastic yet, it is not ignoring concerns around the world about marine plastic waste in particular.
And now, Japan heads into the Osaka summit with the aim of getting the leaders to commit further to dealing with the issue.
That would be the first step toward addressing the far more politically complicated yet environmentally urgent questions of when the G20 might endorse specific plans to clean up the world’s marine plastic, how much it would cost, and how much each individual G20 member state might contribute.
This is part of a series featuring key topics that will be discussed during the Group of 20 summit to be held in Osaka from Friday.