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Editorial: Japan has a new anti-plastics law coming, but the devil will be in the details

A new plastic garbage reduction law will go into effect as early as next spring in Japan. It is aimed at creating a "circular economy," by reforming our disposable culture, pushing us to use our resources efficiently, and reducing the load we put on our environment.

    Huge amounts of plastic garbage end up in the ocean, where it is having a very serious impact on the ecosystem. Meanwhile, restrictions on exporting the waste have begun, making reducing it an internationally pressing issue.

    Japan produced about 8.5 million metric tons of plastic garbage per year, making it the second worst in the world for plastic waste per capita. The Japanese government has committed to reducing disposable plastics by 25% by 2030.

    Until now, only some types of plastic have been recycled in Japan. The new law, however, encourages making all plastics a cyclical resource, from production to recycling. The national government will certify easily-recyclable products. Convenience stores and other retail businesses will be required to charge for single-use plastic items like spoons and straws, and to replace them with alternatives. Businesses that take no action, and ignore government orders, could be fined up to 500,000 yen (about $4,540).

    The law will also request municipal governments to collect all household plastic waste, like toys and plastic stationery, together. It also calls on manufacturers and retailers to implement their own collection programs.

    Almost all plastic is made from oil. It is cheap, and light, and strong, and has a huge array of applications. During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been increased demand for plastic food trays as more people started getting take-out.

    Japan recycles 85% of its plastic, but well over half of that is in fact burned to generate electricity or exported abroad. Only around 20% of plastic waste is turned into new products. A variety of substances go into plastic products, which makes it expensive in both money and effort to recycle them. There needs to be a way to divide up the task.

    Consumers, too, have a lot of options to reduce plastic waste, like choosing products that don't use much of it, or carrying around a beverage container. We have the example of reusable shopping bags, which came into heavy use after stores were compelled to charge for the disposable plastic ones.

    A cyclical economy means not wasting resources and aiming for a sustainable society. Reducing plastic waste is also an important step in decarbonizing the economy.

    The Japanese government will soon unveil detailed standards for encouraging recycling; the policy must have effective measures. We call on the government to leverage the wisdom of both the public and private sectors toward implementing a solid, steady policy.

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