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Europe speeds up plastic restrictions as sea pollution worsens; Japan lags behind

Article Posted by The Mainichi

A shop of the Ekoplaza supermarket chain in the Netherlands sells products packaged in compostable biomaterial as shown in this photo take on May 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

BRUSSELS -- European countries and industries are among the leading forces promoting restrictions on plastic products such as straws that are polluting the oceans worldwide on an unprecedented scale.

Driving this move is growing public awareness that plastic materials, which are not easily degradable, are causing an international problem equivalent to global warming.

The European Commission, the policy enforcement organization of the European Union (EU), introduced a strategy to ensure that all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable in a cost-effective manner by 2030.

As part of the plan, the commission presented to 27 EU member nations in late May a draft directive banning the private use of disposable plastic products like straws, plastic plates, plastic utensils, plastic coffee stirrers, cotton swabs with plastic stems and plastic balloon holders, and requested that they be replaced with alternative products.

The draft directive also restricts the use of plastic cups for beverages as well as plastic food containers, such as the ones used for take-away items, and urges members to set numerical reduction goals or charge consumers for those goods. Products used for fishing, such as nets, lines, etc., are also targeted.

The commission intends to get the draft approved by EU member states and the European Parliament before the end of May 2019, and members are asked to introduce domestic laws concerning relevant restrictions on plastic products within about two years. It is up to each member state to decide whether to introduce punitive measures against violators or not.

Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission in charge of sustainable development, said, "Europe might not be the world's largest contributor to the marine plastic litter problem, but we sure can be the biggest contributor to find a solution," emphasizing the commission's position to lead countermeasures against plastic pollution.

European states have been a trailblazer in restricting the use of plastic shopping bags. In 2002, Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce a tax on shopping bags targeting consumers. The move expanded to neighboring countries and the European Union as a whole intends to cut the usage of plastic shopping bags by 80 percent from 2010 levels by 2019.

Behind the EU's move was the worsening state of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, with many marine animals found with small plastic fragments inside their bodies. The products that face restrictions make up 70 percent of plastic waste washed up on European shores. Curbing their circulation, it is hoped, will root out the source of pollution. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), of the 300 million tons of plastic waste produced around the world in 2015, 50 percent was packages.

"You can buy sugar free, fat free (products), so why not (buy) plastic free?"

The European shift was also influenced by a policy change by China, which stopped importing plastic waste at the end of 2017 to preserve the domestic environment, barring more than half of exported plastic waste worldwide. As a result, major exporters such as European countries, Japan and the United States are burdened with large volumes of plastic waste, and face a need to reduce the amount and improve ways to process the trash.

France is serving as a leader in this area. The country will ban by law plastic plates and cups for one-time use, and make it mandatory to use biodegradable materials for 50 percent of such products by 2020. Those utensils can be turned into compost at home.

Britain, which is leaving the European Union in March 2019, announced a plan to ban plastic straws and muddlers as early as next year, before the EU will take such a move. The British Royal household has already stopped using certain plastic products such as bottles at related facilities, reportedly in response to an instruction from Queen Elizabeth II who was reportedly alerted of marine pollution by watching a BBC program on the subject.

Global corporations are taking their own initiatives to curb plastic waste, too. Nestle, the world's largest food products manufacturer based in Switzerland, will replace its plastic containers with ones made from reusable materials. Ikea, one of the largest furniture retailers globally with its headquarters in Sweden, intends to remove one-time use plastic products from its sales floors and in-shop restaurants. The McDonald's hamburger chain will phase out plastic straws at its outlets in Britain and Ireland, while Starbucks Coffee will do the same at its shops throughout the world.

Those companies have to accommodate the demands of consumers who are increasingly worried about plastic pollution. The Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza is replacing its traditional plastic packaging with biodegradable items, with the help of the British environmental nongovernmental organization "A Plastic Planet." Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the NGO, explained that those materials have been available for some time but not used.

"You can buy sugar free, fat free (products), so why not (buy) plastic free?" said Sutherland.

However, in contrast to the European and American moves, Japan is clearly lagging behind.

According to an UNEP report released in June, more than 60 countries globally are trying to reduce the use of one-time plastic products such as shopping bags and drinking containers by charging for or banning them. The U.N. body says if planned and implemented properly such a policy can be "among the most effective strategies to limit overuse of disposable plastic products."

But Japan has no state-wide restrictions on plastic products, although local government and corporate efforts to limit plastic pollution do exist. Japan, along with the United States, stopped short of endorsing the Ocean Plastic Charter, which includes measures to limit plastic waste, at the summit of Group of Seven industrialized countries in June, triggering criticism and disappointment in Japan and throughout the world.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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