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Starting this month, Japanese retailers must charge customers for plastic shopping bags. It’s considered an important and overdue measure in the campaign to reduce the amount of single-use plastics, which is a major waste problem, but it’s hardly a solution. Many people also use shopping bags as garbage bags. Plastic shopping bags are generally strong, flexible and can be tied up easily. If shopping bags are not available, people may buy more plastic garbage bags, which means the amount of plastic reduced by restricting shopping bags could be made up by the amount of plastic in garbage bags. Or people may just opt to pay for plastic shopping bags that used to be free.

In an article that appeared July 1 on the Diamond Online website, Tatsuya Kakita, a consumer affairs researcher, said the government knows the new law is unlikely to reduce plastic waste and doesn’t claim that it will. If that were the actual goal, it would just ban plastic shopping bags. The trade ministry says the aim of the law is to make consumers acknowledge the plastic waste issue: People need to assess whether they really need plastic shopping bags in the first place.

Retailers can set their own prices for shopping bags, which range from ¥1 to ¥5 a piece, depending on the size and the store. According to a July 2 article in Abema Times, many convenience store headquarters charge their franchisees for plastic shopping bags at a profit to the company. For the most part, that means individual stores gave out shopping bags at a loss in the past. This arrangement continues even though customers now have to pay for the bags.

The exception is bags whose material content is at least 25 percent biomass, which can be given out by retailers free of charge, though, according to NHK, most convenience stores plan to charge for them as well. Biomass is derived from animal and plant sources that are not harmful to the environment. According to an interview with Haruo Nozaki, president of Household Japan Co., Abema Times, almost all the biomass bags used in Japan are manufactured in Brazil, so there is presently a shortage of such bags owing to the coronavirus crisis.

Kakita says a 25 percent minimum threshold for biomass is not going to make much difference. The purpose of switching to biomass has less to do with waste than with moving away from fossil fuels, the raw material for plastics that contribute to global warming. By encouraging the consumption of more biomass material, the authorities appear to be addressing climate change rather than waste problems.

Although the ubiquity of plastic shopping bags is a problem, their reduction or even prohibition is primarily symbolic. In an article in the July 16 issue of the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, a representative of the Plastic Waste Management Institute says that bags account for just 2 percent of the 8.91 million tons of plastic thrown away in Japan each year, though, according to Professor Hideshige Takada of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology the plastic used in bags is more harmful than other plastic products.

Plastic packaging is a bigger waste problem, especially in the midst of a pandemic that requires people to spend most of their time at home. The writer of a May 29 article in the Asahi Shimbun, who lives in Hiroshima, reports that since the pandemic arrived she has noticed that the pile of recyclable plastic garbage at her condominium refuse station has become significantly larger. The volume of recyclable plastic collected by the city in April was nearly 17 percent higher than it was in April 2019. However, taken altogether the increase in volume of all household waste was only 5 percent, while the amount of commercial waste had decreased by about 25 percent, reflecting the fact that many businesses cut operations due to the pandemic. It’s only the consumption of plastic that has gone up conspicuously.

Consumers may take heart from such news, since the operative term here is “recyclable plastic,” and according to the Plastic Waste Management Institute, 82 percent of recyclable plastic waste is “processed,” but only 17 percent is actually remade into plastic materials. Most of the rest is burned, a process that counts as recycling in Japan but not in other countries, so while the plastic waste may not necessarily be entering the environment as plastic, it could be contributing to global warming. Associate professor Sadao Harada of Osaka University of Commerce told NHK that most Japanese people think Japan is environmentally advanced because of its technology. Japanese products use less electricity and its cars are more fuel efficient. The problem is consumption.

Plastic shopping bags can be replaced with reusable cloth shopping bags, but the reason for the big increase in plastic waste over the past four months is increased consumption of takeout and processed food, not to mention raw food ingredients that, due to fears about spreading viruses, are decreasingly sold loosely and in bulk. Even bananas now come separately wrapped. Some businesses are trying to address this problem. Fast food chain Yoshinoya, for example, provides free biomass bags specially designed to hold takeout dishes with liquid so that they don’t spill.

The one sector that seems to be improving in terms of awareness is drinking water. With the increased popularity of water sold in disposable PET bottles over the past decades, the once common public drinking fountain has disappeared. NHK reports that Tokyo Metro subway stations contained 198 drinking fountains in January 2015. As of May 2018, there were none. However, all Toei subway stations still have drinking fountains where people can refill their reusable water bottles, and now more restaurants and retailers are providing free water stations for refills without the obligation to purchase something. There’s even a smartphone app showing users nearby drinking fountains or water stations in Tokyo.

But, again, the pandemic has changed everything. People may be averse to using water refill dispensers shared by others, and plastic is one of the cheapest, most effective materials for preventing the spread of the virus. Face masks and shields, protective medical equipment — they all contain at least some plastic. The new shopping bag law was enacted to make us more aware of our consumption habits, but right now we seem to have more important things on our minds.

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