September 30, 2007


Global Warming Measures Starting with Waste Reduction in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.61 (September 2007)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" Article Series No.17

What We Can Do to Tackle Global Warming

This year, Japan's record highest summer temperature was broken for the first time in 74 years, making Japanese people feel that the effects of global warming are a real danger. Even though they may hope that global warming can be prevented, some people feel at a loss what to do because the problem is so large. The first step in ameliorating global warming, however, is very simple: to review our own daily lifestyles.

Reducing waste is one of the easiest actions anyone can take. In our society, large amounts of resources and energy are wasted through mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal, and this also increases greenhouse gas emissions. Every person needs to make an effort to minimize waste in order to bring down levels of resource use.

For example, some 30.5 billion plastic shopping bags are consumed each year in Japan; most of these are eventually disposed of as household waste. The energy consumed for a single plastic bag throughout its lifecycle from resource extraction to waste disposal, is about 13.8 milliliters in crude oil equivalent. Multiplied by 30.5 billion, this means that roughly 0.42 million kiloliters of crude oil are consumed to provide plastic bags. We help prevent such energy waste, however, whenever we bring our own shopping bag to the store instead of using a plastic bag.

Agreement on Reducing Plastic Shopping Bags in Sendai

Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture is the biggest city in the Tohoku Region with a population of one million, and is one city that looks forward to enjoying the benefits of reducing plastic shopping bag consumption. Under the revised Containers and Packaging Recycling Law, which entered into force in April 2007, retailers including supermarkets are required to promote waste reduction, because retail stores use a lot of plastic shopping bags and other containers and packaging. On May 14, 2007, Sendai City adopted an "Agreement on Reducing Plastic Shopping Bags in Sendai," in cooperation with civic groups and businesses with branch stores in the city. This agreement was put together to help the city and civic groups support businesses' efforts to offer nonfree plastic shopping bags and encourage consumers to bring their own bags, aiming to reduce plastic bag use as controlling container and packaging disposal.

Sendai City Press Release (May 10, 2007) (Only in Japanese)

Companies participating in the agreement include four local branch stores belonging to national supermarket chains: Jusco Sendai Saiwai-cho branch, Miyagi Coop Saiwai-cho branch, Fresh Food Moriya Saiwai-cho branch, and York-Benimaru Yamato-machi branch. On June 1, 2007, these stores started to charge for plastic shopping bags priced at five yen per bag, while offering a discount service to customers who bring their own bags and collect stamps every time they make a purchase but refuse a bag.

On August 9, Sendai published data on the percentage of people who refused plastic shopping bags when making purchases during the first month after the introduction of the 5-yen charge on plastic shopping bags. Results showed that 78 percent of shoppers at Jusco Sendai Saiwai-cho branch refused a bag, with 84 percent at Miyagi Coop Saiwai-cho branch, 76 percent at Fresh Food Moriya Saiwai-cho branch and 75 percent at York-Benimaru Yamato-machi branch. Before the practice started in May, the percentages were 17 percent, 43 percent, 8 percent (those who brought their own bags) and 16 percent, respectively. These data show that charging for bags had an instant effect.

Charging for plastic shopping bags may seem easy, but in fact it is a difficult task. If one store charges for bags, shoppers may start going to other stores that give bags away for free. Thus when the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law was revised, discussions were held on whether to require charging for plastic shopping bags by law. However, the idea was shelved due to concerns that it might violate the freedom to conduct business as guaranteed under the Constitution. Thus, the decision to charge for bags was left to the voluntary discretion of individual businesses. Another concern was that if industry associations decide on a uniform price for plastic shopping bags throughout the country, this might violate the Antitrust Law.

One major factor in the success of the effort in Sendai was an advisory board on reducing plastic shopping bag use that was formed last November. This board acted as a forum for citizens, businesses and government agencies in Sendai to freely exchange opinions and information regardless of their official positions. The agenda of the advisory board did not include the issue of charging for bags, but was limited to discussions on how to reduce plastic bag use. In the process of reaching the agreement, nine citizen groups, five businesses, three industry associations, Sendai City and Miyagi Prefecture participated actively in discussions held by the board.

As a result, four out of the five businesses that participated in the advisory board made official announcements that they would charge for plastic shopping bags as a means to reduce plastic bag use. Seiyu, a major supermarket and also a member of the board, is working to reduce bag use by providing a service in which those who refuse the bags will get a discount of 2 yen (about US$0.02), instead of charging for bags.

A Million People's Waste Reduction Plan

Sendai has a good reason for actively supporting reduced plastic bag use. In May 1999, Sendai completely revised its master plan on general waste disposal and adopted a new plan that aims to build a material recycling society, naming it "A Million People's Waste Reduction Plan." The plan included concrete numerical targets, such as reducing waste generation per citizen from 1,277 grams per day in fiscal 1998 to 1,107 grams per day by fiscal 2010, and increasing the recycling rate from 16.9 percent in fiscal 1998 to over 30 percent by fiscal 2010.

In order to achieve these targets, every citizen must make an effort to practice the 3Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle). In fiscal 2001, Sendai created a mascot character "Wakeru-kun" ("sorting boy" in Japanese) to familiarize citizens with the 3Rs. With his hair neatly parted on the side, Wakeru-kun asks people, "Are you sorting out your trash properly?" The character has become unexpectedly popular and has helped raised citizens' awareness about recycling.

Partly thanks to the popularity of Wakeru-kun, the daily amount of solid waste generated per citizen was lowered to 1,127 grams in fiscal 2006, a reduction of 150 grams from the previous year (1,277 grams). The recycling rate was raised to 27 percent, an increase of 10.1 percentage points from fiscal 1998 (16.9 percent). However, when comparing amounts of household waste, calculated by excluding general waste from business activities from the total amount of solid waste disposed of in Sendai, the trend was almost flat. Therefore, the city government is putting more energy into reducing household waste. Because one plastic bag weighs 9.9 grams, if every citizen of Sendai refused one bag every day, this could potentially reverse the trend of household waste generation in the city.

Waste Reduction Initiatives in the Professional Sports Sector

In Sendai, active civic initiatives to reduce waste formed a useful background context allowing businesses to charge for plastic shopping bags. One of the initiatives taken by the city was to raise environmental awareness in the area of sports. The main actor in this initiative was the Miyagi Environmental Life Out-reach Network (MELON), which promotes environmental awareness through campaigns such as waste reduction by sports teams that have their official headquarters in Sendai. Teams include the Vegalta Sendai soccer team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, and the Sendai 89ers basketball team.

Miyagi Environmental Life Out-reach Network (MELON)

Sports events offer wonderful opportunities for fans to feel excited and inspired, but at the same time they are also the epitome of the modern world where large amounts of waste is generated by mass consumption and mass disposal. MELON supports professional sports teams' environmental initiatives by setting up eco-stations in the stadiums, showing how to separate garbage, and encouraging fans to bring their own mugs to the stadium, as a way of educating people about the importance of waste reduction and recycling. In an environmental survey conducted by Osamu Nakamura, Associate Professor of the Faculty of Environmental Studies, Nagasaki University and his team, Vegalta Sendai ranked as the team most dedicated to waste reduction measures among the 30 teams in the Japan Professional Football League that responded to the questionnaire.

Eco-City Sendai Produce Project (Only in Japanese)

To reduce waste, it is important to raise the awareness of every citizen about everyday life. Adults need to be role models for children by bringing their own mugs to games and shopping bags to stores, as this will make the children feel it is natural to separate and reduce waste.

Anyone can review their lifestyle and make efforts not to generate waste. Surely we can make one or two more changes in our habits. Is it so hard to encourage others to do the same? It may be only a little thing, but the accumulation of this kind of minor effort can help curb global warming.

(Written by Ichie Tsunoda)