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Japan gov't to make charging for plastic shopping bags mandatory

People carrying plastic shopping bags cross a street in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in this file photo. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

TOKYO -- The government has decided to make it mandatory for retail shops to charge for plastic shopping bags in a bid to reduce waste, according to people familiar with the decision.

The new policy will likely be written into the Act on the Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging. Providing points to customers who decline the bags will also likely be legally recognized as a way to cut down plastic bag consumption, they added.

The Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are making final adjustments to incorporate the new policy into the Environment Ministry's strategy for recycling plastic resources. This strategy stipulates plastic waste recycling promotion measures and numerical targets for such programs, and the ministries will submit a draft plan to an Oct. 19 meeting of a Central Environment Council subcommittee.

The law currently encourages retailers to reduce plastic bag consumption by charging for them, but doing so is not obligatory. Considering making this requirement mandatory was mentioned by Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada in his group interview with media outlets on Oct. 4.

Recent years have seen a number of agreements between local governments and supermarket operators to charge for plastic shopping bags. After nine supermarkets in seven cities and three towns including the city of Toyonaka in western Japan's Osaka Prefecture began to charge 2 to 5 yen per bag in June, the ratio of consumers bringing their own bags shot up to 76.6 percent from 46.8 percent before the agreements.

A Toyonaka city official said charging has a "big effect" on cutting plastic bag consumption. "Retailers seem to want such a measure to be introduced among competing local shops," the city official continued.

But there are substantial concerns over increased consumers' burdens or losing customers as a result of the fees. Making charging for bags mandatory means regulating commercial transactions, and thus requires discussions with trade organizations for smooth implementation.

The government has not yet decided on the timing of relevant legal changes and the introduction of the bag fees at retail stores. "Careful discussions are needed about designing the new scheme to be acceptable for many retailers including convenience stores," said a senior Ministry of the Environment official.

The government intends to complete the plastic recycling strategy by the Group of 20 summit meeting of leaders from industrialized and emerging countries to be held in Osaka in June next year.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department)

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