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A s this summer marks the 10th anniversary of the promulgation of the law for recycling containers and wrapping materials, the government is moving to strengthen the law to force a change in the behavior of consumers. The target is plastic shopping bags provided for free by supermarkets, convenience stores and other shops.

The law was expanded in April 2000 to cover items such as plastic trays for food, milk packs and cardboard boxes in addition to glass bottles, PET bottles and cans. Recycling of plastic shopping bags and trays started that year. The recycling rate for PET bottles increased from 9.8 percent in fiscal 1997 to 48.5 percent in fiscal 2003.

As this is the year for reviewing the law, the Central Environment Council has come up with an interim report that calls for charging fees for plastic shopping bags provided by supermarkets, convenience stores, etc. The Environment Ministry having accepted the report, the government plans to submit a revision of the law to the ordinary session of the Diet next year, with the aim of introducing a fee system for plastic shopping bags in fiscal 2007 and having enterprises shoulder part of the cost that municipalities now bear when collecting containers and wrapping materials covered by the law.

The practice of charging fees for plastic bags will certainly help heighten citizens’ environmental consciousness. To implement the planned revision, though, the government will face the difficult task of coordinating different interests of various parties and devising workable approaches.

Some people wisely use plastic supermarket bags at home to contain kitchen garbage and to wrap vegetables kept in the refrigerator. But others simply toss them away into their household garbage. According to an estimate by a retailers’ association, about 30.5 billion plastic shopping bags are used every year, which means that every citizen uses an average of 300 such bags annually. These bags make up 10 percent of all plastic containers and wrapping materials discarded by households as garbage.

The retail industry and municipalities have been encouraging shoppers to bring their own shopping bags instead of using the plastic bags provided by shops. But as of March 2005, only 13 percent of shoppers were refusing plastic bags at shops. Some consumer cooperatives and supermarkets are charging 5 yen to 10 yen per plastic shopping bag.

In 2002, the Suginami Ward Assembly in Tokyo roused public interest in the issue by adopting a bylaw urging the imposition of a 5 percent tax on such shopping bags if the percentage of consumers bringing their own bags to shops does not top 60 percent by July 2007. Recently supermarket operators called for a blanket imposition of a fee system for plastic shopping bags in order to prevent some shop operators from getting an edge up on competitors by continuing to provide free plastic bags to customers. In addition, under the law, if a fee is charged for such bags, supermarket operators do not have to pay the cost of turning recycled plastic bags into other products.

The government needs to develop a concrete approach to the plastic bag issue because members of the Central Environment Council and the Industrial Structure Council are divided over the central question. While some support a total ban on providing free plastic bags, others fear it may violate the principle of freedom in business operation. If the government chooses not to legally impose a total ban, it may instead try to introduce a system under which it sets a numerical goal of reducing the use of free plastic bags for each type of retailer and then reviews the situation periodically.

The issue of how much to charge for plastic bags also must be resolved. Under the law, if fees are charged for plastic bags, they will cease to be an item subject to sorted-garbage collection by municipalities. This raises the question, how should plastic bags that are discarded and collected as garbage be disposed of and who should bear the cost?

Municipalities are now shouldering an annual 300 billion yen bill to collect containers and wrapping materials covered by the law. The idea of having enterprises bear part of the cost — another pillar in the planned revision — is based on the assumption that, if cost-sharing is introduced, enterprises will make efforts to reduce excessive wrapping, or choose types of containers and materials conducive to sorted-garbage collection and recycling.

To induce enterprises to take on part of the cost, it will be indispensable for municipalities to make costs transparent and increase the efficiency of garbage collection, as the Central Environment Commission’s report states.

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