As the world’s second-highest user per capita of plastics packaging (after the USA), Japan has set a goal to reduce the 9.4 million tonnes of single-use plastics it produces by 25 per cent by 2030, according to Kentaro Doi, director of plastic waste strategy at Japan’s Ministry of Environment.

This is an about-turn, given that in 2018 both Japan and the US declined to sign the G7 pact to reduce the use of single-use plastics and help prevent plastics pollution, much to the dismay of many environmentalists.

This year things were different, and in June 2019 Japan hosted two important international conferences, the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth and the full G20 Summit – at which Japan assumed the presidency of the Group of 20. The meetings had been intended to showcase the country’s efforts to deal with the global ocean plastics issue, symbolised by an announcement that it intends to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympic medals from recycled plastics.

Global leaders have urged concrete actions under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – specifically item 14.1, which stipulates that member countries by 2025 should “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”.

In an announcement published on Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, the government declared the launch of the ‘Osaka Blue Ocean Vision’, which ‘aims to reduce additional pollution by marine plastics litter to zero by 2050’, and Prime Minister Abe announced that at the summit Japan would support developing countries’ efforts, including their capacity building and infrastructure development in the area of waste management. To this end, the Government of Japan has launched the ‘Marine Initiative’ to advance effective actions to combat marine plastics litter at a global scale. 

Actions include training for 10,000 officials engaging in waste management globally by 2025, partnerships between Japanese companies, NGOs and local governments, and sharing Japanese best practices around measures to combat marine plastics debris.

In a first move aimed at reducing plastics waste in the world’s oceans, Japan will amend the 2002 Containers and Packaging Recycling Law by introducing a national fee structure for that common and easy target – the plastics shopping bag. The average Japanese consumer uses up to 450 plastics bags every year.

The economy, trade and industry minister Hiroshige Seko has announced that the government wants to charge a standard National Fee as early as April 1, 2020, and that he will personally coordinate with the Environment Ministry and other relevant agencies to iron out specifics, such as the exact types of bags that will be affected.

However, the reality is that fees of any sort will do very little, or absolutely nothing, to reduce Japan’s plastics waste, since bags account for just two per cent of the total annual volume of plastics entering the packaging market, at just 200,000 tonnes. The environment minister Yoshiaki Harada regards it “as a symbol for curbing single-use plastics”.

In plain undiplomatic language: ‘Plastics bags are flavour of the month so we’ll use it as a symbol for a wider agenda’.


Recycling culture

Since the introduction of the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law in 2002, Japan has taken a global lead in the collection, recovery and disposal of all forms of packaging materials.

Under the Law, everyone takes responsibility. Consumers sort their household waste into at least 12 different material streams, the municipalities collect the garbage free of charge, manufacturers and brand owners pay fees based on material type and volume. This is calculated on an annual sliding scale based on the previous year’s total production figures, minus the total recycling figures. These fees pay for the system.

With regard to PET, government statistics show that the average person in Japan buys 183 PET bottles per year, or to put it a different way, about 740 PET bottles are bought nationwide every second. 

PET is classified separately from other plastics materials. Under a trade agreement, all PET beverage bottles are required to be clear with no colourants, which increases the recyclers’ ability to reprocess material either bottle-to-bottle or as secondary non-food contact packaging or textiles.

Obviously, the Japanese system is working, since for the financial year 2017, the PET recycling rate was the highest in the world at 84.8 per cent. But note that the country’s legal definition of ‘recycled’ is something that has been ‘transformed into something else’.

As for other forms of plastics, the recycling processes recognised by legislation are generally divided into three categories. Thermal ‘recycling’ – or incineration – in third generation waste-to-energy plants accounts for approximately 56 per cent of all recovered plastics. 

Material recycling is approximately 23 per cent of the total, while chemical recycling for industrial purposes registers four per cent.

Forbes Magazine claims that as much as 70 per cent of all plastics collected is incinerated, which contradicts government data.


A wider Japanese agenda

The real question to be asked is: If Japan is so good at recycling its own waste, why is it launching the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision and Marine Initiative when clearly very little Japanese plastics ends up in its rivers and oceans?’

The answer lies not in natural Japanese altruism, but in the application of hard business coupled with soft power and regional influence. Since 2002, Japan has been the sole country in Asia with a coherent environmental policy, backed by robust legislation and driven by technological research and development. That’s 18 years of legislation-driven know-how.

Significantly, the major announcement about the marine initiative came not from the Environment Ministry, but from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, supported by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. And it is quite specific: the objective is to export Japanese technology and know-how to South East Asia. This shouldn’t really be a surprise, as Plastics in Packaging has been writing about this policy for more than a decade. But more recently, a 2016 visit to Indonesia by a delegation led by Prime Minister Abe, accompanied by the Mayor of Osaka, resulted in a city-twinning agreement with the industrial port of Surabaya.

Within months, Surabaya civil servants were studying environmental and waste management in Osaka, while Japanese companies signed Memoranda of Understanding and Joint Ventures for technology transfer. By year-end, Surabaya had enacted ordinances quite similar to those in Osaka.

Today Surabaya is the shining light in the midst of the open garbage dump that the mainstream media would have us believe is Indonesia. Citizens can even pay for their bus journey with PET bottles. Surabaya was the pilot project and proof-of-concept. Expect an onslaught of Japanese diplomatic missions throughout South East Asia in 2020.