Monday, June 12, 2006

Revised law aims to curb Japan's plastic obsession

Society's view of package as part of product will make reduction difficult.

By Hiroko Tabuchi

TOKYO — 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 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 on 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."

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.

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, launched a monthlong campaign in June urging customers to make do with fewer bags.

But Yoshitaka Fukuoka, a professor of environmental science at Tokyo's Rissho University, says the revised law — 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.


  1. hold this over your head and breath deeply for 2 minutesTuesday, June 13, 2006 2:57:00 PM

    Oh, my god. the tourists are absolutely amazing. they ask for a bag (if you work retail) for everything. I always attributed this to their need to have an additional souvenir, like all the shopping bags you have collected from various department stores. the worst of them are such pack rats...... in such a densely populated culture! maybe bags symbolize a package they can wrap around themselves and finally isolate a bit...

  2. I hope I don't get hate mail over this, but the stereotypical modern urban Japanese are considered highly materialistic. It's not true for all of them, of course, but stories like this seem to reinforce that image.