Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans poses an increasingly grave environmental hazard. Japan, which relies on the ocean for its survival, is urged to take a more proactive role in international efforts to combat the problem through recycling and cutting back on the manufacturing and use of disposable plastic products.
Japan, along with the United States, abstained from signing the “Ocean Plastic Charter” that was endorsed by other Group of Seven members and the European Union at the G7 summit held earlier this month in Canada. The charter set a target of ensuring, in cooperation with industrial sectors, 100 percent reuse, recycling and collection of all plastic products by 2030, thus significantly reducing the volume of plastic waste. The government explained that Japan was not ready for tight regulations on plastic products because it has to carefully assess the impact on people’s lives and its industries. True, Japan is a major consumer of disposable plastic products such as plastic shopping bags and product wrappings — but this also means that the nation can do a lot to combat the plastic waste problem.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, the amount of plastic waste produced worldwide has been increasing every year and it hit 300 million tons in 2015. Disposable plastic products such as PET bottles and shopping bags account for 47 percent of the total. While China accounts for the largest volume of such waste, Japan ranks second only to the U.S. in terms of the per-capita volume of disposable plastic waste.
It is estimated that at least 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year. Of particular concern are microplastics — small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long. They come from larger plastic debris such as plastic bags and containers that are broken down by waves and ultraviolet light, as well as from micro-beads widely used in cosmetics and toothpaste. Microplastics, which are difficult to remove once in the ocean, tend to absorb harmful substances and accumulate inside fish, birds and other animals as they make their way up the food chain, possibly disrupting the ecosystem and affecting humans.
Alarmed by the growing pollution — there’s an estimate that the amount of plastic in the world’s waters could overtake that of fish in terms of weight by 2050 — countries around the world have been taking steps to cut back on the production of disposable plastics. Last month, the European Commission proposed banning single-use plastic products such as disposable plastic straws, forks and dishes used at fast-food chains, and requiring manufacturers to cover the cost of collecting and disposing of plastic food and beverage containers. The proposal also called on EU member states to collect 90 percent of PET bottles by 2025.
Legislation aimed at reducing microplastics and combating ocean pollution was enacted by the Diet in mid-June. The bill unanimously endorsed by lawmakers in both the ruling and opposition camps called on makers of soaps and toothpaste to stop using microplastics in their products, and on manufacturers that use plastic in their products to make efforts to reduce waste through greater recycling.
The production of cosmetics with microbeads has been prohibited in some countries including the U.S., Britain and France. The legislation passed this month is said to be the first in Japan to combat microplastic pollution, but how effective it will be in dealing with the problem remains to be seen because it includes no penalties for companies that fail to comply with it.
More follow-up measures should be introduced to combat plastic pollution. The government reportedly plans to devise a strategy for cutting back on plastic waste through more efficient recycling, reducing the use of plastics and promoting alternative materials that are more environment-friendly in time for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka next June.
Business sectors should play their part in combating the problem by complying with the legislation. Consumers can also help reduce waste by refraining from using disposable plastic products.