Editorials

Cuts to usage of single-use plastics gain urgency

The government’s plan for reducing plastic waste, adopted by a subcommittee of the Central Environment Council, calls for a 25 percent reduction of single-use disposable plastic waste by 2030, mandating that retail shops charge customers for plastic shopping bags to reduce their use and to significantly expand the adoption of more environmentally friendly materials. These step are urgently needed at a time when the pollution of the world’s oceans by plastic waste is increasingly raising concerns over threat it poses to the marine ecosystem and ultimately, through the food chain, to human health. However, the plan needs to be followed up by more specific measures to achieve the targets. The base year for measuring the 25 percent cut in disposable plastic waste has not been specified, reportedly in view of objections raised by related industries.

The global output of plastic waste reportedly topped 300 million tons in 2015, a sixfold increase since the 1980s, and it is forecast to expand even more in the future. Only about 15 percent of such waste is recycled. It’s estimated that during the disposal process, up to 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean. Of particular concern is the danger the plastic pollution can pose to human health by way of microplastics, which absorb harmful substances and accumulate inside fish, birds and other animals as they make their way up the food chain. China produces the world’s largest volume of plastic waste at about 40 million tons. But on a per-capita basis Japan is second only to the United States in annual plastic waste output.

Japan produces around 9.1 million to 9.2 million tons of plastic waste. That amount is less than the peak of 10.16 million tons in 2001, but it’s still nearly three times more than in 1980. The nation previously shipped some 1.5 million of plastic waste a year overseas to be recycled in other countries. However, the volume of waste exports in 2018 reportedly fell by roughly 30 percent from the previous year as shipments to China — which used to accept half of Japan’s waste exports — dwindled to about one-tenth the 2017 level as Beijing tightened its waste import regulations, banning nonindustrial plastic waste and restricting industrial plastic waste due to pollution and health concerns. In the face of China’s tighter regulations, more Japanese plastic waste made it way to Southeast Asia last year. But these countries are also tightening their rules on importing plastic waste, and there is little prospect that they will accept more waste in coming years.

As exports of plastic waste decline, more is reportedly piling up in Japan. According to an Environment Ministry survey last fall, the amount of plastic waste stored at local scrap dealers increased in about a quarter of the local governments polled, and in some areas the volume of stored waste has exceeded legal limits. Many local governments said that it increasingly difficult to find scrap dealers who will store and dispose of the waste, with some raising concern over illegal dumping of waste that exceeds disposal capacity.

Substantially curbing the use of disposable plastic products such as PET bottles would serve as a fundamental solution to the growing difficulty of plastic waste disposal. Taking a cue from efforts in other countries, fast food chains and retail industries, as well as food and beverage makers, have begun to voluntarily cut back on the use of plastic products, such as straws and packaging. There are calls for the government to take the lead in introducing a more comprehensive policy regulating the use of disposable plastics.

The government’s plan requires retailers to charge customers for plastic shopping bags — possibly as early as next year — to reduce their use. Whether small shops will be covered by the obligation is being left to discussions with related industries, but convenience store chains will likely be subject to the new regulation. Some major supermarket chains have already started to bill shoppers for bags and reports show that many of the customers decline such bags if charged. Still, plastic bags — which are produced in the tens of billions each year — constitute only a part of the single-use plastic waste problem.

The plan also calls for expanding domestic use of bioplastic materials made from plants to 2 million tons by 2030. Increasing the use of more environment-friendly substitute materials along with changes in consumer behavior and awareness of the damage single-use plastic causes the environment will contribute to reducing the production and use of disposable plastics. These and other targets need to be promptly followed up by more specific plans of action to achieve them.