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Editorial: Numerical targets needed to reduce plastic waste in world's oceans

Environment and energy ministers from the Group of 20 leading rich and developing nations have agreed to join hands to fight the increasingly serious problem of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. In a joint communique, the ministers agreed that they would share information as they work toward reducing plastic waste.

G-20 members will compile country-by-country basic data on the amount of plastic that is discarded and the discharge of waste into oceans, and regularly report to each other on the situation in a bid to reduce this waste. This is an initial step toward creating an international framework.

Plastic is light and strong, but these qualities have simultaneously been negative, as plastic waste whose recovery and storage has been insufficient has ended up polluting oceans at an estimated rate of 8 million metric tons or more per year. And nearly half of this waste comes from G-20 countries.

The joint communique stated that the countries would swiftly take appropriate national actions to prevent and reduce the discharge of plastic litter and plastics into the oceans. However, they stopped short of setting numerical targets, out of consideration for the United States, which doesn't like interference from other countries, and emerging and developing countries that are expected to see an increase in plastic waste as they grow economically.

Numerical targets bring the interests of each country to the surface. Japan, having assumed the G-20 presidency this year, placed priority on obtaining the consensus of all members. One could say that it chose to take the profit over the fame.

However, it is not possible to implement an effective initiative by relying on the autonomy of each country.

We are reminded of past negotiations on global warming. It was in 1992 that the world joined hands to prevent global warming by adopting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. However it took more than 20 years from then for countries to reach a consensus on the Paris Agreement that introduced numerical targets for all emitters of greenhouse gases in their efforts to reduce emissions.

It is unlikely that international collaboration on reducing marine plastic litter will become a reality overnight, and that is exactly why Japan, as the country that proposed the framework, has a responsibility to continue it and be involved.

Japan should, as a matter of course, provide know-how to developing countries whose systems of data collection, waste retrieval and recycling are insufficient. We would also like to see it making an effort to introduce numerical targets and make them effective.

Of course, Japan should first put more effort into reducing plastic waste within its own borders. At a summit meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in June last year, Japan was criticized for not signing the Ocean Plastics Charter that included numerical targets.

Japan is not qualified to call on other countries to reduce plastic litter while remaining a major producer of single-use plastics, exporting close to 1 million tons to developing countries and other destinations each year.

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