Editorials

Cut back on disposable plastic

The government’s draft measures to cut back on plastic waste — featuring a plan to make it mandatory for retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags and a 25 percent reduction in disposable plastic waste by 2030 — mark an important first step toward beefing up Japan’s efforts to combat the increasingly serious problem of global plastic pollution. However, the measures still need to be fleshed out. For instance, the base year for the proposed 25 percent cut has not been specified, while the scope of retailers to be required to charge for the plastic bags, such as whether convenience stores or smaller shops will be included, is left for further discussions. The bottom line is to make sure that the proposed measures will effectively curb Japan’s production and consumption of single-use plastic products.

The amount of plastic waste produced worldwide has been increasing year by year and reached 300 million tons in 2015. Disposable, single-use products such as PET bottles and shopping bags account for 47 percent of the total, according to the United Nations Environment Program. In the process of disposing of the plastic waste, at least 8 million tons are estimated to end up in oceans each year, and the danger of this plastic pollution affecting human health — by way of microplastics absorbing harmful substances and accumulating inside fish, birds and other animals as they make their way up the food chain — has been a source of growing concern.

The increasing caution over plastic pollution of oceans has prompted countries around the world — industrialized nations in Europe as well as developing economies alike — to take steps to regulate the use of single-use plastic products, such as shopping bags as well as plastic straws, forks and dishes in fast-food restaurants. But such efforts have so far been lagging in Japan, which trails only the United States in per capita volume of disposable plastic use. The draft measures presented by the Environment Ministry last month to a subcommittee of its Central Environment Council form the basis of a policy outline of the government’s strategy to cut plastic waste, which it hopes to compile by the year’s end, so that Japan can showcase its efforts to deal with the problem as it hosts the Group of 20 summit in Osaka next June.

Along with the plan requiring retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags for their customers and the target of 25 percent reduction in disposable plastic waste by 2030, the measures call for domestic consumption of environment-friendly bioplastic materials made from plant life to 2 million tons by 2030 from 70,000 tons in 2013, and raising the proportion of recycled and reused plastic packaging to 60 percent of all household and industrial waste. The plan also includes steps to support plastic waste disposal in developing countries.

The ubiquitous use of plastic shopping bags at retail shops — tens of billions of them are said to be produced every year in this country — is often vilified as a symbol of the disposable plastic waste problem. Some supermarket chains already voluntarily charge for shopping bags, and reports show that roughly half their customers decline such bags if charged. Requiring retailers to charge for bags will be a step forward, although whether it will result in significant reductions in the use of plastic bags remains to be seen.

Plastic shopping bags are only part of the problem of single-use plastic waste in Japan. Shipments of PET bottles reportedly jumped from 14.8 billion bottles in 2004 to 22.7 billion in 2016, while the collection rate for recycling such bottles has declined in recent years to less than 90 percent, which means that about 2.5 billion PET bottles go uncollected each year.

Japan reportedly produces roughly 9.4 million tons of plastic waste a year — of which about two-thirds is burned and only some 2 million tons is recycled and reused. The nation has exported roughly 1.5 million tons of its plastic waste annually for reuse overseas. But China, which used to accept about half of Japan’s exports, last year banned the import of plastic waste out of concern about environmental pollution. There will be limits to disposing of our plastic waste by shipping it abroad. Burning plastic waste will also cause the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide, which cuts into the fight against climate change.

The efforts to cut back on plastic waste will require steps to significantly reduce production and consumption of disposable, single-use plastic products. That should involve government policy to prompt Japanese businesses and consumers alike to change their mindset.