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Japan gov't panel begins discussions to slash plastic waste

This file photo taken in February 2018 shows garbage boxes filled with plastic trash at JR Hamamatsucho Station in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A Japanese government panel on Friday began discussions to set a strategy for sharply cutting plastic waste amid rising international concern that it causes marine pollution.

Japan, which emits the largest amount of plastic waste per capita after the United States, has lagged behind other countries in combating ocean pollution by reining in the use of plastics such as disposable containers and shopping bags.

The subcommittee of the Central Environment Council aims to draw up a draft strategy involving numerical goals by the end of this year.

"To lead the world in tackling the plastic waste issue, I expect the panel to compile an effective strategy," Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa said at the meeting.

A panel member pointed out that Japan is slow to introduce measures such as banning sales and use of plastic shopping bags. Another member said it would be important to offer Japan's advanced technology to other countries in dealing with the problem.

The subcommittee is chaired by Shinichi Sakai, a professor of Kyoto University, and includes stakeholders such as the Japan Plastics Industry Federation.

From the next meeting, the panel will study how to efficiently recover and recycle disposable plastic items, promote bioplastics that are derived from biomass sources and easily decomposable in nature, as well as help developing countries tackle the issue.

When plastic items are dumped in the ocean, they become microplastics after being broken down by waves and ultraviolet rays. Microbeads widely used for cosmetics and toothpaste also constitute such waste.

They are difficult to collect once they enter water, tend to adsorb harmful chemicals and accumulate inside fish, birds and other animals as they make their way up the food chain.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated in a report that the annual inflow of plastic waste to the oceans at 4 million to 12 million tons in 2010, greatly affecting marine ecosystem and environment and damaging fishing and tourism industries.

In June, five members of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and the European Union endorsed the Ocean Plastic Charter during a summit in Canada to make all plastic products reusable, recyclable and recoverable by 2030.

Along with the United States, Japan refused to sign it, citing "lack of preparedness."

Later in June, Japan's Diet passed a bill to call on businesses such as toothpaste makers to stop using microplastics in their products and make efforts to reduce emissions of plastic pieces up to 5 millimeters. But the legislation lacks penalties for those not complying.

Apart from the national policy, some domestic companies have started to take voluntary measures, with Japanese family restaurant operator Skylark Co. announcing its plan on Friday to eliminate by 2020 single-use plastic straws from its stores in and outside of the country.

The Japan Cosmetic Industry Association urged its members in 2016 to restrict the use of microplastics, while Oriental Land Co., operator of the Tokyo Disney Resort, began using shopping bags made of bioplastic derived from sugarcane ethanol in 2015.

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