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Beginning in July, retailers across Japan will be required to charge for plastic shopping bags, at a time when marine plastic waste is becoming a serious problem worldwide.

The move is aimed at increasing public awareness of the need to reduce plastic waste. The government will introduce the rule ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games, which will begin on July 24, in a bid to showcase Japan’s contribution to environmental protection to visitors from abroad.

Last May, the government proposed charging for plastic bags as a measure for reducing plastic waste, a target under its strategic plan on plastic resource recycling. It announced the proposal at a meeting of Group of 20 energy and environment ministers held the following month.

In September, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Environment Ministry set up a joint expert panel to develop the proposal. Following the panel’s recommendations, the government revised ordinances for relevant ministries late last year to make it mandatory for retailers large and small to charge for plastic bags starting July 1.

Retailers will be allowed to set bag prices themselves but will be required to charge at least ¥1 for each bag. Stores will no longer be considered in compliance if they only offer discount prices or give reward points to customers who bring their own bags.

Under the revised ordinances, plastic shopping bags are defined as having handles. Bags used for perishable foods will be exempted from the charges. Eco-friendly bags, such as those that break down in seawater thanks to the action of bacteria and those made from plant-based materials, will be also exempted.

During deliberations at the panel, one member called for the government to explain the meaning and purpose of the mandatory measure to avoid confusion among store operators and consumers.

As some local governments have already started banning retailers from providing plastic shopping bags for free, another member said the central government should not disrupt ongoing local efforts.

In response, the central government said in its guidelines, adopted along with the revised ordinances, that the new measure will not discourage local governments from making additional efforts.

While business operators in services and some other sectors are not categorized as retailers and so are not required to comply with the new rule, the guidelines call for them to take similar steps on a voluntary basis to reduce plastic waste.

But the Toyama Prefectural Government, which banned the practice of providing plastic shopping bags for free ahead of other local governments, said the adoption of exemptions to the charges may slow local efforts that have already been implemented.

Some 200,000 tons of plastic shopping bags are used in Japan annually, accounting for only 2 percent of about 9 million tons of plastic waste.

The problem of marine plastic waste cannot be settled by the elimination of shopping bags alone, a senior industry ministry official said. The new rule is “aimed at encouraging people to review their lifestyles through the shopping bags they use every day,” the official said.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi voiced hopes that the rule will “widen popular awareness” on environmental protection.

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