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Big plastic user Japan fights waste ahead of G 20 summit

Japan has a plastic problem.

In a country where cleanliness and neat packaging have long been considered good service, almost everything, from single bananas to individual pieces of vegetables, pastries, pens and cosmetics is sold plastic-wrapped.

But as world leaders descend on Osaka for the two-day G-20 summit last week, Japan will attempt to become a leader in environmental policy at the same time it plays catch-up with countries that already have well-defined goals in place.

In the months leading up to the G-20 summit, Japanese officials have delivered full-throated endorsements of future bans on single-use plastics, beach cleanup efforts and more research into alternatives such as bioplastics. The problem is, the enforcement and timing of the directives have yet to match measures already in place in the EU _ including sweeping legislation passed earlier this year that will ban single-use plastic in all member states by 2021.

Just last summer, Japan was criticized for failing to sign the G-7 Plastics Charter, the only country to do so besides the United States.

At a mid-June meeting of G-20 environmental ministers in Karuizawa, Japan brokered an agreement to begin sharing best practices and establishing standards for tracking marine plastic waste, but stopped short of setting numerical goals or a timeline for progress.

Japan is the world’s No. 2 consumer of single-use plastic packaging per person – the United States is No. 1 – according to a 2018 U.N. Environment Program report. G-20 nations produce half the world’s plastic waste, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will chair the summit, has made fixing the problem a top initiative, both at the summit and in Japan.

But Japanese promotional efforts, such as crafting next year’s Tokyo Olympic medals and champion podiums from recovered metals and plastics, have failed to impress experts who say that Japan cannot recycle its way out of a global plastic waste crisis, and that the country instead needs to focus on reducing plastic at the earlier end of the supply chain.

“What we are asking for is the reduction of plastic produced in the first place,” said Mageswari Sangararalingam, a Malaysian-based waste management expert.

There are signs that Japan is beginning to recognize its own difficulties.

Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko announced at the G-20 environment ministers’ meeting plans for a law that will require retailers to charge fees for plastic shopping bags as early as next April.

Seven & i Holdings Co., the Japanese operator of 7-Eleven convenience stores, announced a plan last month to replace all plastic shopping bags with paper by 2030 and all plastic packaging with paper, biodegradable or other reusable materials at its nearly 21,000 stores nationwide. Those goals are more ambitious than the government’s 2030 target for a 25% reduction in single-use plastic.

Selected 7-Eleven stores near Tokyo, including one at Yokohama, have started offering paper bags instead of plastic. Saemi Nakamura, a customer, said the change is welcome. “The world is talking about the use of plastic not being good. I think paper bags are better,” Nakamura said.

Another convenience store chain, Ministop, began charging 3 yen (3 cents) per plastic shopping bag in an experiment at two stores in Chiba, near Tokyo, which is to be expanded to about 40 outlets by early 2020.

But plastic shopping bags and packaging are only a small part of the overall plastic waste problem, experts say. As much as 12.7 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean each year, of which up to 60,000 tons comes from Japan, according a study cited by the country’s Environment Ministry.

Japan is also the world’s No. 2 exporter of plastic waste. It used to export about 1.5 million tons per year, mainly to China. After China stopped accepting plastic imports in 2017, several Southeast Asian nations became new targets, but some countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines, are now turning the shipments back. They accused rich countries of pushing their garbage onto poorer nations.

Officials in Japan have scrambled to find a new home for the country’s used plastic by establishing a 1.9 billion yen ($18 million) emergency fund over the past two years and asking local authorities and waste handlers to shoulder additional loads for recycling and incineration. Japan’s plastic waste exports last year totalled 1 million tons, according to trade statistics, but experts say the decline could be linked to an increase in illegal exports or stockpiles at garbage dumps.

“We are trying to develop more domestic plastic recycling facilities and capabilities, but it takes some time,” said Hiroshi Ono, an Environment Ministry official.

At a factory on Tokyo Bay, one of more than a dozen operated by plastic recycling company Kyoei Industry Co., about 35 tons of PET bottles are processed daily. They come in hundreds of bales, each wrapped in plastic, and are then unraveled, sorted, pulverized, heated and minced. Next they’re turned into fine pellets and reborn as egg cartons, school uniforms, soccer jerseys and other sports equipment, as well as PET bottles, returning to store shelves, said company president Eiichi Furusawa.

“Even if we wanted to (export plastic waste), no country welcomes imports now,” Furusawa said. “We think we need to circulate plastic domestically.”

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Single-use plastics ban poses challenge for Canada’s fossil fuel sector

The oil industry’s next threat could be in the grocery aisle.

A worldwide movement to limit single-use plastics in food packaging poses a challenge for Canada’s fossil fuel sector, at the same time that large companies struggle with volatile prices, pipeline constraints and the global rise of electric vehicles.

PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would join other countries and ban as early as 2021 a range of everyday plastics that are frequently discarded after a single use, including forks and knives, shopping bags and stir sticks.

The move is part of wider efforts by the Liberal government to improve Canada’s dismal recycling rates and reduce pollution, just five months shy of a federal election in which the environment and climate change promise to be major issues.

The proposed ban would align with European Union regulations on single-use plastics, and a global push that some analysts and energy companies say has major implications for global oil demand and industry revenues.

The oil industry supplies chemical manufacturers with the building blocks needed to make resins that are used to create plastic products. Globally, petrochemicals account for the single-largest contributor to oil-demand growth out to 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

This year, British oil giant BP PLC estimated that a hypothetical global ban on single-use plastics could shave about three million barrels a day from demand forecasts. That compares with current world demand of roughly 100 million barrels daily.

“That doesn’t sound like a big number, but it’s not insignificant, particularly when you start to look at that as a percentage of oil-demand growth. It’s not nothing,” said Katherine Spector, a research scholar studying the issue at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy in New York City.

To be sure, data are spotty about how much plastic winds up in single-use items versus durable goods such as cars. It’s also difficult to assess long-term impacts of new restrictions. And it can be hard to accurately define single-use plastics.

Moreover, a global ban is far from reality, and effects could be muted over time. “I do not consider that a big drop in demand over that time frame,” said Jackie Forrest, an analyst at ARC Energy Research in Calgary.

But forecasts of rising oil demand to make plastics may also butt up against shifting consumer tastes.

In a sign of shifting behaviour, a recent public-opinion poll by Dalhousie University said one in two Canadians actively shop for greener packaging options, although few are willing to pay a premium.

The lobby group for Canada’s oil producers declined comment on the impact of the measure. The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, whose members include Imperial Oil Ltd., Inter Pipeline Ltd. and the Canadian arm of Dow Chemical, said it does not support bans of any kind.

Environmental groups applauded Canada’s proposed ban on single-use items, as well as the pledge to make companies that manufacture plastic products or sell items with plastic packaging pay for collection and recycling of their waste.

Ottawa said it would conduct a scientific assessment to determine specific items to prohibit and could also adopt policies requiring products to contain a set amount of recycled content, or be capable of being recycled or repaired.

Even as restrictions mount, companies are committing to new investments. In December, 2017, Inter Pipeline announced plans to build a $3.5-billion plastics plant in Northern Alberta to take advantage of provincial subsidies.

“We don’t support bans that aren’t based or rooted in science,” said Isabelle Des Chênes, executive vice-president of the Chemistry Industry Association.

Chelsea Rochman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, said there is no question that single-use plastics harm wildlife as they break down in the environment, with potentially toxic effects.

“There’s no doubt that there is exposure and that these animals are eating the microplastics,” she said.