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As Waterways Choke on Plastic, Japan Soft-Pedals on Waste

SNA (Tokyo) — If you’ve ever shopped at a Japanese supermarket or convenience store, the sight of fruit, cookies, pastries, and other foods individually wrapped in plastic isn’t surprising. It’s part of a mountain of single-use plastic products, from bento lunch boxes to oshibori towelettes in plastic wrappers, that underpins the lives of Japanese consumers. While other countries have moved ahead with policies like banning single-use plastic bags, Japan is only now saying it will try to curb its plastic fetish.

At least that was the official message when Japan hosted the recent G20 summit in Osaka. Nations failed to agree on a united stance to tackle climate change, but they did back a Japanese initiative to eliminate ocean plastic. The “Osaka Blue Ocean Vision” plan is aimed at cutting additional marine plastic pollution to zero by 2050. To help accomplish that, the Japanese government said it will support waste-management infrastructure and capacity-building in developing countries.

“The G20 is united on the concept of an ‘Osaka Blue’ vision to deal with marine plastic waste, a problem that cannot be solved by just a few countries,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the summit near Osaka Bay, which, according to one recent study, contains an estimated 3 million plastic shopping bags and 6 million other pieces of plastic.

Lobby groups such as the American Chemistry Council, which represents the interests of US plastics makers, hailed the Japanese initiative. But it lacks an enforcement mechanism since the G20 is an entirely voluntary framework. Critics pointed out the same problem with a 2018 G7 agreement to reduce plastic waste in oceans. The United States and Japan refused to sign that commitment even though they’re the leading producers per capita of plastic waste.

“Unlike climate change, marine plastic litter is a rather new issue,” a Japanese government official said in a briefing in Tokyo prior to the Osaka summit, reflecting the country’s go-slow approach. “We don’t yet have a good body of scientific knowledge regarding the origin and pathways of plastic waste as well as their potential impact on human health.”

Some critics have said Japan’s efforts are too little, too late.

“While the G20 agreement on aiming to reduce additional pollution by marine plastic litter to zero should be welcomed, letting the pollution happen for another thirty years is not acceptable,” says Hisayo Takada, a program director at Greenpeace Japan.

“As some of the biggest plastic polluters, and per-capita plastic waste generation and export, the G20 countries need to give clear prioritization to the reduction in production of single-use plastic,” says Takada. “Host country Japan needs to start with regulating the reduction in use of single-use plastic at the national level instead of promoting just climate impacting end-of-pipe and cleanup measures like incineration.”

Japan has relied on disposal of plastic through incineration, recycling, and export. However, out of about 9 million tons generated annually in the country, only 1 million is collected as recyclable material. Meanwhile, plastic trash has been accumulating in Japan after China banned imports of plastic waste in 2017.

For environmental activists like Joy Jarman-Walsh, founder of sustainable tourism site Inbound Ambassador, the effects of Japan’s plastic addiction are all too plain to see. Originally from Hawaii but long based in Hiroshima, she organizes grassroots cleanups of plastic waste from Japan’s parks, rivers, and shorelines.

According to Jarman-Walsh, the most common plastic pollution items found along Hiroshima’s beaches are styrofoam, plastic tubing, and discs from offshore oyster farms. Along the rivers, most appears to be from littering: recyclable PET bottles, shopping bags, plastic containers, and wrappers. In only a few hours, volunteers can fill ten to thirty bags, weighing about 15 to 90 kg in total, with plastic garbage.

That’s nothing compared to the 40 tons of plastic including fishing nets that an ocean cleanup group recently removed from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is estimated to be 87,000 tons spread out over an area twice the size of Texas. These efforts can hardly put a dent in the problem, but Walsh says they’re encouraging others to change how they think about plastic and to get involved by picking up plastic trash themselves.

“As I grew up on Oahu playing on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, I took it for granted,” says Walsh. “Seeing my kids playing on beaches littered with plastic garbage where we had decided to settle was a shock. It encouraged me to do what I could to educate them and help clean it up for the sake of their future.”

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