Plastic Bag Use Plummets, but Japan still 2nd for Plastic Waste

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A shopper puts her purchases into a reusable bag that she brought with her in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Wednesday. Few shoppers at the store were paying for plastic bags.

It has been three years since retailers started charging for plastic bags, on July 1, 2020. The charges have helped reduce plastic waste in Japan, with 80% of shoppers abandoning single-use bags.

Yet, Japan still generates the world’s second-largest amount of plastic waste per person, and one expert said that “The change to fees has been just the first step toward reducing plastic waste. Further efforts are needed.”

Going reusable

“Do you need a bag?” a store clerk asked. “No, thank you,” said Rina Seki, a 36-year-old caregiver from Adachi Ward, Tokyo. She had dropped by the Nihonzutsumi outlet for Super Shimadaya in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on her way home from work. Declining to buy a single-use bag, she put her purchases for supper into her reusable grocery bag.

“Although it costs just ¥3 per bag, it would be a waste,” said Seki, who always carries a reusable bag with her. She said she took the introduction of bag fees as a chance to cut down on her plastic use more broadly. For instance, she makes it a rule to wash and reuse plastic spoons and forks she gets at convenience stores, and has her three children carry their own durable water bottles when going out.

“I am always thinking of what we can do in our daily life. I want to leave a cleaner global environment to our children,” Seki said smiling.

Kenji Akiyama, head of the merchandise department at the company that runs the supermarket chain, said, “We would often receive complaints from our customers, saying, ‘Why don’t you give us bags free of charge?’ But, with an increasing number of people now carrying reusable bags with them when shopping, one feels how the charges have taken hold.”

Plastic bag volume halves

Single-use plastic products, including plastic bags, do not easily decompose once they are disposed of in the sea or rivers, causing serious pollution. In a bid to reduce plastic waste, the government made it mandatory from July 2020 for all retailers to charge for plastic bags, via a change to ministerial ordinances under the law for recycling containers and packages.

According to the Japan Chain Stores Association, the percentage of shoppers declining plastic bags at checkout at supermarkets in Japan reached 80.26% in fiscal 2021, up sharply from 57.21% in fiscal 2019, before the charges were introduced.

A survey conducted by economic research center JCER found that plastic bags distributed in Japan in 2019 totaled about 197,160 tons. But this halved to 100,410 tons in 2021.

One local government has ratcheted the regulations even tighter. The city government of Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, in January 2021 became the first municipality in the country to put into force an ordinance that bans all the business operators within the city — or about 700 stores in all — from providing shoppers with plastic bags.

Paper bags, replacing plastic ones, also now require a fee. As a result, the percentage of residents carrying reusable bags when shopping rose from 50% to 90%, leading to a reduction of about 700,000 plastic bags per month.

According to a public opinion survey conducted last autumn by the Cabinet Office, 60% of people said they “have become more conscious [of the need to reduce plastic waste] and taken action accordingly” since charges were introduced for plastic bags.

Tsutomu Mizutani, head of the office for the promotion of recycling at the Environment Ministry, said, “With people’s awareness of the plastic waste problem having grown steadily, [the change in regulations] has been effective to some degree.”

Just 1.2%

Nonetheless, the amount of plastic waste produced in the country came to 8.24 million tons in 2021. Plastic bags accounted for a mere 1.2% of this total.

In light of this, the government has taken a series of additional waste-reducing measures. In April last year, the government made it mandatory for business operators to reduce waste from 12 single-use plastic products, including spoons, forks, and amenities provided by hotels, and it has been promoting the introduction of plastics with lower environmental impact.

According to the U.N. Environment Programme, however, the volume of plastic containers and packages discarded per person in Japan ranks second in the world, just after the United States.

An international organization has even estimated that unless effective measures are taken the amount of plastic waste produced worldwide in 2060 will reach 1.014 billion tons, about three times more than in 2019.

Hiroyuki Ueda, a senior researcher at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co., who is well versed in the plastic waste problem, said, “Measures in Japan still only go halfway. The public and private sectors must join hands to work toward further waste reduction and greater recycling.”