December 31, 2006


Working to Reduce Plastic Bag Use

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.52 (December 2006)

Japanese supermarkets, convenience stores and other retail stores generally provide shoppers with free plastic bags to carry their purchases home. Some are reused as garbage bags, but many are simply thrown away. Plastic bags are made from petroleum. In Japan, growing public awareness of resource and waste issues has led to various efforts to reduce plastic bag use.

How many new plastic bags are used in Japan initially? Japan is said to consume about 250,000 tons of new plastic bags annually. Since each plastic bag weighs from 7 to 9 grams (8 grams on average), the total number of plastic bags consumed annually in Japan is about 31.3 billion, or 260 per person. In other words, every person uses 5 plastic bags per week.

The Japanese government, retailers and citizens' groups believe that plastic bag use must be reduced. An increasing number of people now recognize that charging for plastic bags is the most effective way to reduce plastic bag consumption. However, there are no legal measures aimed at reducing plastic bag use in Japan. Some amendments that will come into force in 2007 were recently made to the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law, but a prohibition against free plastic bag distribution was not one of them.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of municipalities are striving to cut back plastic bag use in order to reduce garbage volumes and to increase public awareness of resource issues through shopping, an everyday activity. One of the leaders in this movement is Suginami Ward in Tokyo.

When the Comprehensive Decentralization Law of Japan went into force in April 2000, Japanese local governments could begin to individually levy taxes for specific purposes. Suginami Ward is considering taking advantage of this opportunity to introduce a plastic shopping bag tax as a way of reducing the burden on the environment while increasing revenues. A study on how to introduce such a tax proposed that about 5 yen (about 4 US cents) per plastic bag should be collected from retailers for a five-year period. It also suggests that the money collected should be used to promote waste reduction and recycling.

According to Suginami Ward, the plastic bag tax system will encourage residents to bring their own shopping bags to stores and increase their awareness of the need for a more eco-friendly lifestyle. The ward also notes that such a tax system will lead to reductions in the overall consumption of petroleum as well as in the cost of waste management through a reduction in the amount of discarded plastic bag garbage - now 1,500 to 1,700 tons per year.

The movement to encourage people to bring their own shopping bags to stores initially did not catch on at first, although a generation ago most Japanese housewives carried a shopping basket to market. The news of Suginami Ward's plans for a plastic bag tax system immediately attracted the public's attention, and the movement gained momentum nationwide. Currently, an increasing number of people and organizations throughout Japan are working to reduce plastic bag use.

For example, the City of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture adopted a slogan of "No to plastic shopping bags," and is campaigning to reduce plastic bag use. (only in Japanese)

Other municipalities such as Toyota City in Aichi Prefecture and Sayama City in Osaka Prefecture have adopted campaigns such as a monthly "My Bag Day" or a "No Plastic Bag Day" to encourage city residents not to use the plastic bags offered by stores. Some of these campaigns have actually led to significant reductions of plastic bag use in these communities.

In Kochi Prefecture, there is a unique program to link plastic bag reduction to forest preservation. Kochi Prefecture Green & Forest, an incorporated association dedicated to forest conservation, introduced a scheme in which participating shops donate the amount of money saved by not providing plastic bags to customers to the association's fund, called "Green Donation." In the scheme, whenever shoppers refuse a plastic bag, the cashier gives them a point on a stamp card; once the stamp card is full, shoppers voluntarily put it into a designated donation box at the store. The amount that the shop gives to the Green Donation scheme is calculated from the number of points on the stamp cards.

Another related movement initially organized by several municipal governments has also spread nationwide. In 2000, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government called on other municipal governments to participate in an "environmentally friendly shopping" campaign, and 14 prefectural governments joined in. In 2003, the national government's Cabinet Office took on the organization of this campaign as a nationwide event, and all 47 prefectural governments now participate. October has been designated as "3R" month (3R = Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), and during this month the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Infrastructure, the Ministry of the Environment, the 3R Promotion Forum and all prefectural governments join in calling on the public to practice 3R when shopping.

By focusing on shopping, a daily activity closely related to environmental issues, this campaign aims to reduce waste by promoting practices such as using one's own shopping bag, avoiding excessive packaging and choosing refillable products. The distribution and retail industries also call on stores to sell environmentally friendly products and to provide simple packaging, while encouraging customers to bring their own shopping bags.

How is industry addressing this issue? Plastic bag producers, for example, are making efforts on their part to tackle the issue by developing and producing thinner, less resource-consuming plastic bags and biodegradable plastic bags.

In the retail industry, supermarkets run by consumer cooperatives were among the first to charge customers for plastic bags, while conventional supermarkets continued to offer customers free plastic bags. Co-op Kobe, for instance, introduced a system in 1995 in which shoppers who need a plastic bag voluntarily put 5 yen per bag into a collection box. The store also lends reusable shopping bags free of charge to customers who forget to bring their own shopping bags. Now, over 70 percent of Co-op members bring their own bags.

Although many non-coop supermarket chains still hesitate to ask customers to pay for plastic bags, some chain stores have decided not to provide shoppers with free plastic bags. For example, OK Store, a mid-sized supermarket chain mainly located in the Tokyo metropolitan area, charges 6 yen per bag. Many OK Store customers bring their own shopping bags. The store also offers free used cardboard boxes from delivered products to customers who come by bicycle or car to carry their groceries. This actually helps the store cut the costs of discarding used cardboard boxes.

Meantime, the Japan Chain Stores Association has set the fifth of every month as "No Plastic Bag Day" to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags instead of using plastic bags.

Twelve major convenience store operators have set up five-year plans for the period 2006 - 2010 aimed at reducing plastic bag consumption. Their goal is to reduce every store's plastic bag consumption 35 percent by 2010, compared to 2000 levels.

Lastly, we would like to introduce some other efforts by local governments. Nagoya City has adopted a city-wide point program, "Ecocoupyon." In this program, when shoppers refuse a plastic or paper bag when checking out at participating shops, they receive an "Ecocoupyon" sticker. If they collect 20 sticker points, they can get a shopping coupon worth 50 yen (about 42 U.S. cents) to use at participating shops. The idea is that people who do not take bags can get a discount while also helping protect the environment. (only in Japanese)

Tottori Prefecture in western Japan has an experimental "carbon bank," which issues various local currencies to people engaging in activities aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. These currencies can be used at shopping centers and convenience stores in the region. The bank's office is located in the Tottori University of Environmental Studies, where each department carries out various environment protection activities, such as promoting "ecological household bookkeeping" and cleaning up public places. Participants in these activities receive points under a program called "Love the Earth-Mileage," and can exchange them for a local paper currency, called TUES after the university's acronym. People can also receive TUES currency by refusing plastic bags at participating shops. So far, five Lawson convenience stores in Tottori City are participating in this program; the university hopes the number of participating shops will increase in the near future.

Because plastic shopping bags are a part of most people's everyday life, efforts to reduce the consumption of these bags has drawn attention nationwide as a first step to encourage consumers to develop their environmental awareness and make their lifestyles more environmentally friendly. Various efforts have been undertaken and vigorous discussions are ongoing around the country.

Many other nations and regions are also facing problems related to excessive plastic bag use and are taking action to deal with these problems. Indeed, some countries have freed themselves from dependence on plastic bags, and everybody brings their own baskets to shop, while some other countries and municipalities now prohibit the use of plastic bags by law.

Are plastic shopping bags commonly used where you live? Has excessive plastic bag use become a problem? Are there any laws or restrictions aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags, for example, by charging for them? What kind of activities do you think help reduce the consumption of plastic bags? Please let us know about the situation and current ideas regarding this issue in your area. We would like to compile the information and share it with all of you.

(Written by Junko Edahiro, Kazuhiro Okada, and Keiko Hoshino)