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Japan lagging in measures to curb plastic waste despite int'l support pledge

Plastic waste is piled up at the storage site of Toko Metal Co. in Tokyo's Ota Ward on Nov. 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO/SINGAPORE -- The Japanese government has failed to implement effective measures to dispose of a deluge of plastic waste in Japan as other countries move to limit imports of such waste. This is despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge to step up Japan's cooperation with Asian countries in dealing with plastic pollution in oceans.

Prime Minister Abe unveiled the ASEAN+3 Marine Plastics Debris Cooperative Action Initiative at a summit between Japan, China, South Korea and ASEAN member countries in Singapore on Nov. 15.

Under the initiative, Japan will help these countries monitor plastic waste in oceans and work out respective action plans. Moreover, Tokyo will transfer technology it uses to incinerate plastic debris and thermally generate power.

By offering such support to ASEAN countries, Japan aims to seize the initiative in international cooperation to curb plastic waste as it prepares to host next year's Group of Twenty (G-20) summit, according to Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada. The summit will take place in Osaka in June 2019.

However, Japan did not support the Ocean Plastics Charter, an accord to prevent plastics from flowing into the sea that was proposed at the Group of Seven (G-7) summit this past June. The country subsequently came under fire from environmental NGOs and others for being reluctant to take steps to fight against the contamination of the sea with plastic debris.

Afterward, the Environment Ministry pledged to reduce plastic shopping bags, pass on to other countries Japan's methods of recycling plastics, and export so-called "environmental infrastructure" including technology to incinerate plastic waste. The measures were announced in the draft of a strategy for recycling plastic resources released this past October.

However, Japan itself has struggled to dispose of a flood of plastic waste in the country because China and other Asian countries and regions have restricted their imports of plastic waste one after another since late last year.

According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), Taiwan issued a directive limiting imports of plastic and other waste beginning in October. Malaysia temporarily suspended all imports of plastic waste, but resumed imports with restrictions on Oct. 23. Thailand has suspended its issuance of import licenses for plastic waste while Vietnam has tightened customs inspections of such waste. A port in Ho Chi Minh City remained inundated with some 70,000 metric tons of plastic waste as of September because customs officers were opening containers to examine plastic refuse even if importers have import licenses.

Takashi Watanabe of the JETRO pointed to the need to reduce the use of plastic products and dispose of such waste in Japan. "I guess Thailand and others don't have enough capacity to process plastic waste. I don't think any other country would import a massive amount of such waste. We should consider cutting back on the use of plastic goods and disposing of waste in Japan," he said.

Japan's exports of plastic waste to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have sharply increased since China enforced restrictions of its imports of plastic waste at the end of last year. Such exports to Thailand over the January-August period increased sevenfold from the corresponding period of 2017, while those to Malaysia from January to July increased by 2.5 times the volume of the previous year.

According to the Plastic Waste Management Institute, plastic waste in Japan totaled 8.99 million tons in 2016. Environment Ministry figures show that 1.5 million tons of plastic waste was exported mainly to China in 2017, and most of the amount is believed to have come from businesses.

Intermediary processing companies that sort out and crush plastic waste from businesses are being flooded with requests to accept more plastic waste. Tokyo-based Toko Metal Co., a leading company in the industry, said the firm dealt with some 3,000 tons of plastic waste in October, 1.5 times the figure a year earlier.

According to the results of an Environment Ministry survey released in October, 56 percent of intermediary processing companies responded that the amount of plastic waste they dealt with has increased while 24.8 percent of local bodies replied that their stocks of such waste have grown.

The outcome suggests that securing places to dispose of plastic waste has posed a challenge.

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department, Reiko Oka, Lifestyle News Department, and Aya Takeuchi, Jakarta Bureau)

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