Japan’s new plastic bag charge: What it means for the country and its environment (Sihao and Yu En)

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) have implemented a policy to mandate a charge for single-use plastic bags starting 1 July 2020 in an effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste going into the environment. Many retail outlets such as convenience stores and supermarkets are now charging around ¥3 per bag in hopes of discouraging unnecessary waste. Store cashiers have since started asking customers if they require plastic bags before handling them out. Reusable bags were issued by some local governments in advance to prepare consumers for this new policy. 

Single-use plastic wastes have been causing extensive environmental damage as they not only pollute the oceans around Japan, but also serve as health hazards when they break down into microplastics and bioaccumulates in the food chain. As Japan both represents itself and is represented by others as having a “clean” environment, the mandatory charging of plastic bags can be viewed as a national effort in curtailing usage of single-use plastic waste which is estimated to be around 200,000 tons annually. There were also discussions to recycle 100% of Japan’s PET bottles by 2030 and do away with other single-use plastics such as straws and utensils. 

Yet, creating a sustainable environment is not necessarily the goal, but rather part of the political agenda to appear green. Additionally, private establishments like bento chains and retail shops are charging for plastic bags not because they want to preserve the environment, but rather as a regulation that they must comply. In Japan, consumers are to be treated with high regard and not providing something as basic as plastic bags is considered an inconvenience. Instead, some would offer plastic produce bags which defeats the purpose of the whole initiative in reducing plastic consumption.

Just as Kirby (2011) demonstrated the possibility of different interpretations of sustainability held by different stakeholders, Japan and its environment is represented differently through the eyes of multiple stakeholders. For the most part, the Japanese government views the country as a sustainable nation concerned with its environment. With the country’s strict garbage disposal system, there is a strong image of recycling associated with Japan. A similar image of sustainability can be seen through the article, where Japan has created and is enforcing laws that aim to reduce plastic waste produced by the nation. Although the reason behind this move may partly be an earnest attempt by the government to decrease the amount of plastic waste ending up in Japan’s natural environments, the article also stresses the influence of international pressure as a motivating factor for change  (Johnston, 2020). As such, Japan’s move towards sustainability may be an attempt to “save face” through the compliance of gaiatsu, or “outside pressure” (Kirby, 2011, p. 164).

As mentioned briefly above, the new policy, which has been implemented largely because of increasing domestic and international pressure, reflects the idea of gaiatsu as a force that is still pushing Japan towards the road of sustainability (Kirby, 2011, p. 164). Japan’s bowing down to international pressure may also highlight the workings of a larger, global power, thus reflecting Robbins’ idea of political ecology (2007). Additionally, the article introduces multiple stakeholders — international organisations, the Japanese government and Japanese locals. The very notion of sustainability, or Japan as a “green nation”, is defined differently for each stakeholder. This is similar to the ideas brought across from Totman’s reading on forest management and the different ideologies held by stakeholders on forest sustainability (2009). Finally, the article also highlights that damage to the environment can eventually affect locals themselves through bioaccumulated microplastics. This explicitly ties to Walker’s idea that people are undoubtedly, timelessly connected to nature (2010, p. 8).

 As such, we need to reconsider the notion of Japan as a green nation.

(625 words)

Resources

Johnston, Eric (2020). “Japan’s new plastic bag charge: What it means for consumers and the environment”. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/07/01/national/japan-plastic-bag-charge-consumers-environment/#.X0zrvMgzaUk (accessed 26 September 2020). 

Kirby, Peter. Wynn (2011). “Constructing Sustainable Japan”. In Troubled Natures: Waste, Environment, Japan, pp. 160-192. University of Hawai’i Press

Robbins, Paul (2007). “The Hatchet and the Seed” Political ecology: a critical introductionMalden MA: Blackwell Pub: 3-16.

Totman, Conrad. Davis (2009). “Japan’s Forests: Good Days and Bad – Rhythms of Damage and Recovery”. Retrieved from http://aboutjapan.japansociety.org/content.cfm/japans_forests_good_days_and_bad_–rhythms_of_damage_and_recovery_-.

Walker, Brett L (2011). Toxic archipelago: a history of industrial disease in Japan. University of Washington Press.