An amendment to the Basel Convention regulating the cross-border movement of hazardous waste, proposed by Japan and Norway and unanimously adopted by the treay’s signatories last week, effectively makes it difficult to export plastic waste to other countries and calls on nations to strengthen their domestic recycling and disposal capacities. The amendment, reportedly the first legally binding international framework to curb plastic waste, reflects the growing sense of alarm over the environmental hazards posed by such waste. As a major producer and consumer of single-use plastic products, Japan needs to step up its efforts to recycle the products and cut back on the use of disposable plastics.

The amount of plastic waste produced worldwide has continued to increase, hitting 300 million tons in 2015. While the volume of waste has multiplied by six times since the 1980s, only about 15 percent of it is recycled. Roughly 8 million tons of waste are believed to end up in the ocean each year, posing a serious threat to the marine ecosystem and, through the food chain, to human health.

Major industrialized nations have shipped the plastic waste that they cannot process to other, mainly developing, countries, where it is supposedly recycled. However, the countries that accepted it, including China, once the world’s largest importer, have begun to either ban or restrict the import of plastic waste in recent years, raising fears that the plastic waste overflowing in many countries would pose an increasing danger to the environment and led to calls for international regulations on the transfer of plastic waste.

Under the amendment to the Basel Convention, which will take effect in January 2021, dirty plastic deemed unsuitable for recycling will be added to the list of waste subject to controls, requiring the consent of importing countries prior to export. Japan, which has also exported plastic waste that could not be recycled domestically, will need to phase out the shipping of its waste overseas, Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada said.

Japan produced about 9 million tons of plastic waste in 2017. Of that amount, 23 percent was recycled, 62 percent was processed for power generation, waste heat and conversion into fuel, and 14 percent was either incinerated or buried. But of the waste recycled, only about 40 percent was processed domestically. The nation ships some 1.5 million tons each year to other countries where the cost of processing and recycling it is much lower.

After China tightened its regulations on waste imports out of environmental concerns, Japan’s exports in 2018 declined by roughly 30 percent from the previous year. As shipments to China plummeted to one-tenth of earlier levels, Japan exported more waste to Southeast Asian countries. But these countries have also begun to restrict their imports as their capacity to process the waste was soon overwhelmed.

As the plastic waste shipments to China were slashed, waste that exceeded the capacity of domestic firms to process them reportedly started piling up on their premises, raising fears of illegal dumping. As the amended Basel Convention will soon make the waste exports difficult, it will be an urgent challenge for Japan to beef up its capacity to recycle or dispose of such waste.

Equally important will be efforts to curb the production and consumption of single-use plastics, such as shopping bags provided by retailers. Japan is second only to the United States in the world in terms of per capita volume of single-use plastics. Much depends on the actions of businesses and consumers alike to minimize the use of disposable plastic products.

A draft strategy compiled by the Environment Ministry in February to curb plastic waste called for a 25 percent cut in the output of single-use plastics by 2030 and mandating that retailers charge customers for plastic shopping bags. However, how the cut will be measured remains unclear because the base year from which the 25 percent reduction is calculated has not been specified. The government needs to flesh out the strategy with a specific plan of action to achieve the target.

The development and greater use of substitute materials that have a lower impact on the environment is also key to reducing plastic waste. The government’s strategy calls for increasing the domestic use of bioplastic materials made from plants from 70,000 tons in 2013 to 2 million tons by 2030. These and other plans to cut back on plastic waste are all the more urgent now that the nation essentially needs to dispose of or recycle the plastic waste it generates on its own.

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