Japan retailers to begin charging for plastic utensils and straws from April 2022

The new law aims to promote the use of biodegradable paper or wooden alternatives among retailers, restaurants and hotels.
The new law aims to promote the use of biodegradable paper or wooden alternatives among retailers, restaurants and hotels.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Plastic utensils and straws will no longer be given out for free in Japan from April next year, joining plastic bags in being chargeable under a so-called "plastic tax" as the country fights the scourge of single-use plastic waste.

The new law, passed by the Diet last week, aims to promote the use of biodegradable paper or wooden alternatives among retailers, restaurants and hotels, which could face fines of up to 500,000 yen (S$6,050) for non-compliance.

The finer details of the law, including the scope of businesses that will be affected, are due to be finalised by October. While customers must be charged for plastic utensils or straws, paper or wooden options can be distributed for free.

The environment ministry hopes this will raise environmental awareness among businesses and consumers alike.

A mandatory charge on plastic bags that began in July last year spurred a shift in behaviour, a government survey has shown. Seven in 10 shoppers now refuse plastic bags at convenience stores - up from just two in 10 before the initiative.

Retailers are allowed to set their own fees, which typically range from three yen to 10 yen (four to 12 Singapore cents) per plastic bag. Some businesses have gone even further to charge for paper bags in a mounting fight to reduce waste.

The war against plastic comes as Japan set ambitious climate goals earlier this year to slash its greenhouse gas emissions from 2013 levels by 46 per cent by 2030, and to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But environmentalists have pointed out that Japan remains a laggard. The Environmental Investigation Agency said in a statement that the country remains non-committal to a proposed United Nations treaty on plastic pollution that two-thirds of members of the world body have backed.

Japan produces nearly 10 million tons of plastic every year, according to the Plastic Waste Management Institute, of which about 100,000 tons consist of disposable plastic spoons and straws.

Mr Hiroaki Odachi of Greenpeace Japan told The Straits Times that while Japan has long claimed a plastic recycling rate of more than 80 per cent, nearly 60 per cent was burned in a "heat recovery" process that it defined as "thermal recycling".

But Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi said in tabling the new law that "heat recovery" cannot be considered "thermal recycling" due to the carbon emissions involved. This means that just a quarter of its plastic waste is being recycled.

The new law also covers the manufacturing and collection of plastic items, while a new system will certify environmentally friendly plastics. Local municipalities and corporations will be incentivised with subsidies to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic.

As it is, businesses in Japan have gradually been phasing out plastic. Supermarket chain Aeon is repackaging daily necessities and ingredients into reusable containers that consumers can return for a rebate.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) will use sugarcane fibres for its in-flight meal containers from August. The airline expects to reduce single-use plastic waste by 317 tonnes a year.

Nissin is redesigning the packaging of its cup noodles to eliminate the "lid closing seal" - a thin piece of plastic adhesive that holds the lid closed - in a move that it estimates will save 33 tonnes of plastic waste each year.

Still, Mr Odachi said that the government guidelines must go even further to tackle the use of single-use plastics through measures that tackle the material's life cycle from its mass production to its disposal.

While he acknowledged the need for plastics in essential items such as single-use personal protective equipment and masks in the Covid-19 fight, he said: "Japan must go further to build a 'de-disposable' social system that does not require disposable containers or packaging."

Mr Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic movement, agreed. The new law is a small but important step, he told The Straits Times.

"For a country that's notorious for excessive and wasteful packaging and burning almost everything in their incinerators , much more needs to be done to move companies to redesign their products and the way they are delivered to consumers," he added.