A new international agreement on plastic waste trade should be a first step toward fundamentally changing the way we use plastic products.
Most signatory nations agreed to add contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastics to the U.N.-backed Basel Convention that regulates cross-border movements of hazardous wastes during a recent meeting.
An estimated 300 million tons of plastic waste are disposed of worldwide every year, with 8 million tons ending up in the oceans. While huge amounts of plastic waste are exported to developing countries for recycling, much of it is actually thrown away without treatment, polluting the oceans.
There are also growing concerns that so-called microplastics, or miniscule plastic pieces, could pose health hazards for humans and other animals through the food chain and other natural processes.
The revision to the convention is designed to stem this trend. Japan co-sponsored the proposal to revise the convention, which was drafted by Norway. This commits Japan to lead global efforts to reduce plastic waste.
Japan has been exporting more than 1 million of the 9 million tons of plastic waste it generates annually.
From now on, Japan, like other signatory countries, will have to dispose of contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste at home.
The market for plastic waste is already glutted due mainly to China’s decision at the end of 2017 to stop accepting plastic waste. Policy measures should be taken to prevent a growing glut in the market from increasing illegal dumping.
The public and private sectors should work together to swiftly enhance the nation’s plastic disposal capacity through such steps as building new plants to clean and sort plastic waste.
It should also be ensured that such plants will not produce new sources of pollution, such as polluted water generated by cleaning operations.
It is said that Japan makes effective use of a large portion of the plastic waste it produces. But so-called “thermal recycling” accounts for much of the amount. The approach involves burning the waste and using the heat generated.
This method raises some serious questions from the need to curb global warming and save resources. If Japan simply continues burning an increasing amount of plastic waste as a response to the problem, its commitment to reducing the consumption of plastics will be called into question.
Instead, Japan should focus on reducing its per-capita consumption of single-use plastic products, which is the second largest after the United States. It is important to reconfirm that the core of Japan’s strategy for reducing its plastic waste is cutting its consumption of the material itself.
The Environment Ministry is working on a strategy for recycling plastic resources. Japan was criticized for refusing to sign the Ocean Plastics Charter to tackle the problem of ocean plastic pollution at the Group of Seven summit last year.
To restore Japan’s green credentials damaged by the move, the ministry is developing an ambitious plan for plastic recycling including some impressive numerical targets and time frames for achieving them. The government should take steps to ensure that the blueprint will be steadily implemented.
To reduce plastic consumption, everyone needs to change their lifestyles and the way they use the material.
Companies should promote the use of “green” plastics, such as biodegradable plastics, which are decomposed by living organisms mainly into water and carbon dioxide, or plastics made from plant biomass.
Consumers, for their part, should avoid as much as possible using single-use plastic products such as plastic shopping bags and plastic plates and straws.
It is crucial for the entire society to accept certain cost increases and reduced convenience from these efforts.
Unrestricted use of disposable plastics is no longer acceptable.
–The Asahi Shimbun, May 14