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[ISHES Newsletter #10]Japan's Efforts to Tackle Marine Plastics Litter

2019/05/24 16:35:10


ISHES Newsletter #10
May 24, 2019

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Copyright (c) 2019

Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society, Japan


Dear Readers,

We are happy to release our 10th issue of the ISHES Newsletter! We hope you enjoy reading our articles from Japan related to happiness, economy and society.

In this May 2019 issue, you will find the following articles:

- Japan's Efforts to Tackle Marine Plastics Litter

Lately, the global problem of marine plastics has taken center stage. Japan was widely criticized at home and abroad for not signing the Ocean Plastics Charter in June 2018. Here we look at the ambitious strategy Japan announced more recently.

- New articles from the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom

This time we provide the first article of a series by Noriko Takigami, from the Secretariat of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom, entitled "Learning from Confucius: The Analects (1)," uploaded on the Institute's website.

- Recommended articles from the JFS Newsletter on sustainability issues in Japan

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are coming up next year. This JFS article describes an initiative to make the Olympic medals with metal recycled from used electronic devices collected in urban areas.


Japan's Efforts to Tackle Marine Plastics Litter

By Junko Edahiro, President of the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES)

Report on the Subcommittee for the Resource Recycling Strategy for Plastics

Japan and other countries today recognize marine plastic litter as a serious problem. To address this issue, the Central Environment Council, which advises Japan's Ministry of Environment (MOE), established the Subcommittee for the Resource Recycling Strategy for Plastics under its Recycle-oriented Society Committee. It held five meetings between summer 2018 and early spring 2019, and as its output, the subcommittee compiled and submitted a report to the MOE. I had the opportunity to provide my input as one of the 17 subcommittee members.

The Japanese government decided to formulate a strategy on plastics for two reasons. One was to respond to international expectations. Japan had joined the United States in not signing the Ocean Plastics Charter referred to in the communique from the G7 Charlevoix Summit in Canada in June 2018. The Charter includes quantitative targets and deadlines, one being "Working with industry towards 100% reusable, recyclable, or, where viable alternatives do not exist, recoverable, plastics by 2030." To justify not signing, Japan claimed it had not had enough time to coordinate discussions domestically, and unsurprisingly, faced major criticism domestically and internationally for not signing. Thus, as the host country of the G20 Summit in Osaka set for June 2019, Japan had to develop ambitious strategies to move discussions forward on marine plastic pollution, one of the major issues to be addressed at the summit.

Another reason was the Chinese government's announcement at the end of 2017 that it would ban the import of 24 types of solid waste in order to reduce environmental pollution. Previously, Japan had been exporting 1.5 million tons of waste plastics annually, about a half of which went to China. Following China's decision, other Asian countries also started to restrict waste imports. Consequently, plastic waste that was being exported from Japan to China and other Asian countries would have nowhere to go. Meanwhile, some municipalities in Japan are already exceeding their available capacity for waste storage, so there is increasing pressure to deal with plastic waste in Japan. An urgent and fundamental response was needed.

At the first meeting of the subcommittee, I emphasized four points: (1) We need to formulate strategies based on the recognition that Japan's efforts are lagging behind. (2) Instead of a patchwork of reactions, we need a fundamental vision and a comprehensive framework. (3) We should regard these challenges as a source of global competitiveness. (4) Our responses can also drive innovation.

Japan's Current Situation

Before looking into Japan's new strategies, let's look at the situation based on research reports.

First, let's consider the production of plastics. Asia accounted for 50.1% of global production in 2017. China was the largest producer at 29.4%, while Japan accounted for 3.9% of global production.

Plastic shopping bags are increasingly being banned or taxed around the world. Japan uses about 45 billion shopping bags a year, of which about 30% are from convenience stores. Many supermarkets already charge a fee for plastic bags, and when consumers have to pay, more than 80% decline the use of plastic bags.

How about plastic bottles? According to the Council for PET Bottle Recycling, national sales of designated polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles (beverages and specified condiments) in fiscal 2017 came to 578,000 tons, or 23.6 billion bottles, or more than 190 plastic bottles per person annually.

As for recovery and recycling, in fiscal 2017 the recovery volume of designated product PET bottles was estimated at 371,000 tons and the recycling rate 84.8%. Many of the bottles are recycled into fiber and food trays, but this recycling rate includes thermal recovery by incineration. The volume of plastics disposed without being recycled was estimated at 89,000 tons. Although nearly 85% is recycled, plastic bottles account for the third largest volume of coastline waste.

The Japan Soft Drink Association announced a target to utilize 100% of used plastic bottles by fiscal 2030. Thermal recovery by incineration should be the last resort, so the association hopes to recycle the plastics as raw materials and to promote "bottle-to-bottle" initiatives that turn used bottles back into plastic bottles.

According to research calculating the total waste volume of plastic containers and packaging, including plastic shopping bags and bottles, China is by far the largest emitter, followed by Europe and the United States in second and third place, respectively. Per capita, however, Japan is in second place after the United States.

How responsible is Japan for global marine plastic pollution? One study on plastic litter originating from the land and ending up in the ocean found the top three emitters in 2010 to be China (3.53 million tons), Indonesia (1.29 million tons), and the Philippines (0.75 million tons). The United States and Japan ranked 20th (110,000 tons) and 30th (60,000 tons), respectively.

Meanwhile, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation collected and analyzed 652 samples of drifting waste litter on the ocean surface in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Out of 386 plastic waste items bearing recognizable labels, one third had Japanese inscriptions (115), the highest, followed by Chinese (113). Reasons for the large volume of plastic waste found there originating from Asia, including Japan and China, are reportedly that the waste drifts on the Kuroshio Current and that those countries are actively fishing in the Pacific.

The MOE also conducted a monitoring study on drifting waste at ten locations nationwide in fiscal 2016. Plastics accounted for a large share of many kinds of drifting waste, including metals, fabrics, glass, ceramics, paper and wood: 23.3% of the total by weight, 48.4% by volume, and 65.8% by the number of items. Fishing nets, ropes, buoys and other items of fishing gear accounted for about 60% of the drifting plastic waste by weight.

Quantitative Targets in Japan's Plastic Recycling Strategy

Let's look at Japan's recycling strategy for plastics, which was established in the context described above. Each target below is shown in comparison with the targets stated in the Ocean Plastics Charter which served as a reference for Japan's strategy.

* Reduce 25% of the accumulated volume of one-way plastics by 2030 (Japan's original target)
* Design plastic containers, packaging and products to be technically sortable, reusable, and recyclable by 2025, while maintaining their functionality (and when this is difficult, at least ensure the feasibility of thermal recovery) (Ocean Plastics Charter target year is 2030)
* Recycle and reuse at least 60% of plastic packaging by 2030, and recover 100% of all plastics by 2035 (including through heat recovery) (Ocean Plastics Charter target is 55% by 2030 and 100% by 2040)
* Double recycled plastics content by 2030 (Ocean Plastics Charter target is for 50% increase)
* Introduce 2 million tons of biomass plastics by 2030 (about 2 million tons) (Japan's original target)

You will notice that every target is set slightly ahead of the schedule in the Ocean Plastics Charter. In addition to introducing fees for plastic shopping bags, I think it is important to set regulations and incentives to encourage the use of recycled plastics. There are also initiatives under way in the paper industry and various other industries and companies to develop alternative materials, and these efforts are expected to lead to innovation and new business. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established the Clean Ocean Material Alliance in January 2019, with the aim of addressing the problem of ocean plastics waste. It has about 160 member companies and organizations and is expected to promote the sustainable use of plastics, to develop and introduce the alternatives, and to accelerate innovation.

Progressive Approaches by Japanese Municipalities

Many municipalities in Japan are taking action too. Here are two examples.
Kameoka City in Kyoto Prefecture and its city council issued "Kameoka Zero Plastic Waste Declaration" in December 2018, with the goal of having zero waste from single-use plastics by 2030. The city aims to establish a bylaw banning stores from offering plastic shopping bags to customers.

In 2003, Kamikatsu Town in Tokushima Prefecture was Japan's first municipality to issue a "Zero Waste Declaration" in an effort to eliminate incineration. It has successfully minimized the amount of waste being incinerated by having the whole town work to carefully sort waste into 45 categories. Used plastics are collected in six categories. The town collects not only the plastic containers and packaging designated by the Containers and Packaging Recycling Act, but also plastic products, to be recycled into plastic fuel. Kamikatsu serves as a model for other municipalities.


Japan has relatively good management systems for waste collection, recycling and disposal. Generally, people in Japan are also cooperative in sorting waste, bringing their own shopping bags and bottles, and refusing plastic bags at stores. But to really promote plastic recycling as outlined in the Plastic Recycling Strategy and achieve its targets, Japan needs more detailed policies and systems. It is not enough to simply say we need to deal with the waste problem. We need industrial strategies to close the resource loop. It is also important for Japan to introduce and support advanced waste management systems in Asia and other regions, so Japan can help reduce plastic waste worldwide. This is an important space for all of us to watch, and I hope that Japan really moves ahead with its commitments.


New articles from the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom

In this section we introduce the latest articles posted on the website of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom.

Here we introduce the first article of a series by Noriko Takigami, from the Secretariat of the Research Institute for Creating New Paradigms based on Eastern and Western Wisdom, entitled "Learning from Confucius: The Analects (1)." What is the meaning of "the path" that appears so frequently in the Analects?

We hope you enjoy reading.

Learning from Confucius: The Analects (1)


Recommended articles from the JFS Newsletter on sustainability issues in Japan


In this regular section in each issue of the ISHES Newsletter, we recommend past articles from Japan for Sustainability newsletters. The non-profit JFS was active from August 2002 until July 2018, sending out information to the world with the aim of moving society in Japan and the world toward being more sustainable and happy.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held next year. In this month's newsletter we introduce a JFS article describing efforts to make the Olympic medals using resources recycled from used electronic devices collected in urban areas. The resource collection phase ended in March 2019 and the final results have not yet been announced, but we do know that as of October 2018, 90% of the required amounts of metals had already been obtained.

Making Olympic Gold Medals from 'Urban Mine' Sources


We hope you enjoyed reading out newsletter.
Thank you for your kind support.

"Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society

*The Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society (ISHES) is an organization based in Japan that is working to build a happy and sustainable society. To this end, we need to think about happiness, economy and society together by learning from, analyzing, and thinking about theories and cases in Japan and around the world regarding what happiness is and what kind of economy and society will create and support happiness.

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