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In Japan, it’s in the bag, and that’s the problem

Wrapping-happy Japan consumes some 30 billion plastic bags a year. Facing criticism from environmentalists, Japan is now trying to reduce plastic use, but cutting back will be an uphill task.
Clerks at a Tokyo convenience store work near a poster that reads: “Please mention if there's no need for plastic bags.”
Clerks at a Tokyo convenience store work near a poster that reads: “Please mention if there's no need for plastic bags.”Junji Kurokawa / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Buy lunch and a magazine at any Japanese convenience store, and you’re likely to get your drink in one plastic bag, hot lunch box in another, and your magazine in yet a third.

The mega-packaging keeps your food hot, your drink cool and your newspaper clean, but environmentalists say it also creates a mountain of plastic waste that fouls the air, pollutes the oceans and contributes to global warming.

The world uses between 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags a year, according to the advocacy Web site, Wrapping-happy Japan is a major player, consuming some 30 billion — about 300 for each adult.

Those figures don’t include the tons of extra wrapping — individual plastic covers for shirts from the cleaners, tiny packages for single cookies — used in Japan, experts say, suggesting the country is among the world’s premier consumers of plastic sheet.

“Japan probably uses more plastic than most societies in the world,” said Hideki Nakahashi, a spokesman at the Japan Polyolefin Film Industry Trade Association.

Facing criticism from environmentalists, Japan is now trying to reduce plastic use with a law revision that lets the government issue warnings to retailers that don’t do enough to reduce, reuse and recycle.

The revised law was approved by Parliament Friday. But for a country famous for elaborate wrapping, cutting back will be an uphill task.

“We consider wrapping a part of the product,” said Shinji Shimamura, a spokesman for the Japan Franchise Association, which represents over 125 franchise chains in Japan.

“Of course it’s good to cut down on plastic bag use,” Shimamura said. “But we can’t hand customers a hot lunch box or cold ice cream without a bag. That would be unhygienic and very rude.”

Bags on bags in bags
Still, wrapping habits in Japan border on the excessive. Some fruit stores even wrap each apple or banana in plastic. And when purchased, they all go in yet another plastic shopping bag.

The impulse to wrap may stem from Japan’s traditional attitudes toward gift giving, which is geared to presentation more than content. The layering of wrapping also has important social meaning — more wrapping means more politeness and formality.

And the bags are so cheap, particularly imports, that shops don’t have the incentive to reduce or recycle, analysts say.

Some retailers have taken the initiative to cut back even before the revised law comes into effect in 2007.

Lawson, Inc., a convenience store chain with almost 8,400 stores in Japan and sales of over $1.15 billion in 2005, launched a monthlong campaign in June urging customers to make do with fewer bags.

“We’re asking people who buy only one bottled soft drink or one packet of gum whether they don’t mind going without a plastic bag,” said Lawson spokesman Shin Nakamura.

But a lot of people want the bag, he says.

“If it’s a can of hot drink, for example, customers don’t want to carry it in their hand,” he said.

Convenience may be hazardous
That convenience is bad news for the environment, said Yoshitaka Fukuoka, a professor of environmental science at Tokyo’s Rissho University.

Plastic bags waste valuable oil resources and the energy it takes to produce them contributes to global warming. Some can release harmful toxins when burned, and many end up in the sea and can kill sea turtles and other marine animals that mistake them for food.

Moreover, Fukuoka says the revised law — with only a system of warnings, with no legal liabilities — doesn’t go far enough.

“Stores must be forced to charge for bags. That’s the only way Japanese consumers can be persuaded to cut down on the plastic bags they use,” Fukuoka said.

Germany, for example, saw plastic bag use fall by 70 percent after the government introduced a small levy in 2002. Similar strategies have been successfully employed in Ireland, South Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, Shanghai and Taiwan.

‘A sense of responsibility’
The Environment Ministry, however, argues the revision is a step in the right direction.

“The law is about raising awareness and a sense of responsibility,” said Yoichi Horigome, an official at the ministry’s recycling policy bureau. “We expect retailers to be very cooperative.”

The ministry is also suggesting more traditional and ecological alternatives to plastic. It recently launched a campaign to revive the “furoshiki,” Japan’s traditional answer to the reusable bag, a piece of fabric for carrying things by simply wrapping them.

“Japanese weren’t always so wasteful,” Horigome said. “We once led more environmentally friendly lifestyles. I think we can draw on that.”