Editorials

Banning (some) free plastic bags

The government plans to require retailers beginning next July to charge for the plastic bags they distribute to shoppers. It is part of an overall effort to reduce wasteful use of disposable plastics that are produced and consumed in massive volumes worldwide.

The move is a step forward for Japan, where efforts to reduce disposable plastic waste have lagged behind countries in Europe and Asia, such as China and Indonesia, that have already taken steps to ban either the production of such bags or their free distribution. According to a recent Cabinet Office survey, nearly 90 percent of the respondents said they are interested in the plastic waste problem, and not accepting disposable plastic bags at shops was the leading answer they cited when asked how they intend to deal with the issue themselves.

However, those disposable bags account for just a tiny portion of all plastic waste — a mere 2 percent of the 9 million tons produced annually in Japan, according to some estimates — even though they are often vilified as a symbol of the disposable plastic problem due to their widespread use.

More than half of Japan’s plastic waste is believed to come from construction material and industrial detritus, while household waste includes large volumes of disposable plastic products such as food containers and PET bottles. For meaningful cuts, broad and multifaceted efforts are needed, including changing consumer behavior and lifestyles as well as significantly reducing the output of disposable plastic products.

Efforts to reduce the distribution of disposable plastic bags by retailers have a long history. During discussions in the mid-2000s, it was almost decided to make it mandatory for retailers to make shoppers pay for them, but the measure was eventually shelved upon strong objections from the convenience store industry. Major supermarket chains started charging for bags in the early 2000s, urging shoppers to bring their own, but most convenience stores still provide them for free.

Under the government’s draft plan, for which it has been soliciting public comments, retailers in all categories nationwide would be required to charge shoppers starting next July. The initial plan to launch the new rule in April has been pushed back as industrial sectors argued they need more time to adjust. How much to charge for each bag, and how to use the proceeds, will likely be left to each retailer.

But even Japan’s belated measures to control the distribution of plastic bags at the retail level will have exceptions — with some of them reportedly included in the government draft at the request of the convenience store industry in the process of discussions involving the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Environment Ministry.

According to the draft, disposable plastic bags made up of at least 25 percent bioplastic material can still be distributed free of charge, along with bags that are at least 0.05 millimeters thick and deemed capable of multiple use. Bags made of marine biodegradable plastics will also not be subject to the regulation.

Switching to more environmentally friendly alternative materials is deemed a key to combating pollution from disposable plastic waste, and promoting the use of bioplastics is one of the key features of the government’s plans to reduce the plastic waste pollution. However, questions are being asked about exempting bags made of 25 percent bioplastic materials — since those bags will still be 75 percent made from petroleum-derived plastics and the damage to the environment when they are illegally dumped will still be severe. Nor is there any guarantee that plastic bags a bit thicker than the ones in common use today will see repeated use.

The government’s draft plan says getting retailers to charge for plastic shopping bags will facilitate changes to consumers’ lifestyles and curb the excessive use of those disposable plastic bags. Japan is second only to the United States in annual per capita volume of disposable plastic consumption. As much as 45 billion sheets of disposable plastic bags are said to be distributed to Japan’s shoppers each year. The government needs to rethink whether granting exceptions to the ban on their free distribution will contribute to changing consumer behavior and curbing the excessive use of disposable plastics.