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Opinion: Japan must tackle plastic pollution on a global scale to truly win gold

Christina Dixon (Courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency)

Although the Japanese government deserves credit for striving to make the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games the "greenest games ever," we need lasting solutions to plastic pollution.

    The media continues to fawn over efforts to green the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Projects include making medals, athletic apparel and even beds from recycled material. And it was reported that 24.5 tonnes of used plastic, equivalent to roughly 400,000 laundry detergent bottles, were gathered to produce recycled plastic podiums. It is safe to conclude that the Japanese Olympic Committee certainly takes home gold for public relations. But when it comes to plastic, are recycled plastic podiums just a gimmick hiding an uncomfortable truth?

    We cannot downcycle our way out of the global plastic pollution crisis. On the contrary, countries must tackle unsustainable production and consumption of plastics as an initial matter, followed by ensuring that the plastic that we do use is designed for reuse or can otherwise be put back into the circular economy: bottles to bottles, packaging to packaging -- not bottles and packaging to park benches.

    Let us look at the numbers. On a per-capita basis Japan is the second largest generator of plastic waste, producing around 9 million tonnes in 2018. Despite claiming a mechanical recycling rate of 23% (2,080,000 tonnes), data derived from the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services' (ICIS) Recycling Supply Tracker shows otherwise, that total domestic recycling capacity today is just half of that, with actual output volumes lower still. Data from U.N. Comtrade shows that Japan exported 1,018,219 tonnes of plastic waste overseas in 2018 -- over 11% of its total annual plastic waste production. But as is the case for many wealthy nations, almost all of this plastic waste was shipped to non-OECD countries with low recovery rates and high leakage into the environment. These countries are literally swimming in plastic waste -- not necessarily recycling it.

    Japan knows that downcycling alone is insufficient. One commendable example is the recent government commitments on certain single-use plastics -- a preventative measure. But no one country can go it alone; we are going to need similar actions the world over. And what better place -- or platform or podium or pulpit -- is there for uniting the world around much-needed action on plastic pollution than the Olympic Games?

    This is where recycled plastic podiums miss the mark.

    With all eyes on Tokyo, energy and focus should be on a global plastics treaty, one premised on upstream solutions to the global plastic pollution crisis. This is the only way to address the overwhelming scale of the problem and damage already done to our planet. Due to the clear transboundary nature of plastic pollution and the economy -- both plastic pollution and the plastic value chain are global -- a patchwork of national and voluntary measures is not enough. The treaty must focus on addressing the full lifecycle of plastic, starting with unsustainable plastic production then followed by prevention and product design before finally turning to waste management and recycling.

    Japan knows that bold international action will be needed. Last year it served as the chair of a U.N. expert group that investigated that very issue, begging the question why Japan remains behind other countries in its support of a global plastics treaty. Indeed, two-thirds of the world's countries have expressed support for starting negotiations on a global plastics treaty at the upcoming U.N. Environment Assembly in February 2022. In the meantime, Japan has recycled plastic podiums.

    But it is not too late for Japan to lead on this issue, and the Japanese public agrees. Polling data from the Environmental Investigation Agency in June 2021 shows that 77% of the Japanese public believe plastic pollution to be one of the most pressing environmental issues of our generation, 83% believe that legally binding solutions are important to addressing the problem and 61% believe Japan should be taking a leadership role in promoting a new treaty. If Japan is not careful, the country may be left out in the cold.

    Without clear answers from government, speculation on the issue is rife as to why Japan remains tight lipped about starting the negotiations on an ambitious global treaty that tackles the full lifecycle of plastics and promotes a safe circular economy. In the absence of clarity, speculation runs rampant: could it be due to the influence of companies profiteering on incineration and other false solutions to plastic waste or is it simply a failure to recognise the problem for what it is?

    According to estimates in the recent Plastic Waste Makers Index, three of the top 10 banks lending money or underwriting debt to produce single-use plastics are Japanese -- providing financing to the tune of $7.4 billion -- cementing Japan firmly within the ecosystem of a linear and destructive plastic economy.

    One thing that is never speculative is the urgent threat to the health of our planet, and all inhabitants, if plastic pollution is not addressed as a primary concern by all U.N. countries, including Japan.

    Here is hoping for a commitment soon from a country in a pivotal position to take a leadership role on a global plastics treaty, and that can make a difference of truly Olympic proportions.

    (Christina Dixon, campaigner, Environmental Investigation Agency)

    (Christina Dixon is a campaigns, policy and communications professional currently working at the Environmental Investigation Agency, based in London, U.K. Her focus is on plastic pollution and fisheries, having worked previously helping to establish the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and on advocacy linked to the topic of "ghost" fishing gear, one of the major sources of plastic pollution. She has been invited as an expert to numerous meetings from California to Indonesia to speak about her work with governments and companies to reduce plastic from fisheries.)

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