How China’s plastic waste ban has left Japan to deal with mountains of trash

Environment ministry plans to increase recycling efforts with state-of-the-art facilities, and to raise awareness of wasteful behaviour

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2018, 11:17am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2018, 9:35pm

Mountains of plastic waste are piling up in Japan, forcing a rethink on the country’s recycling efforts as China continues to limit imports of the unwanted material to resolve its own pollution crisis.

Japan’s environment ministry is drawing up plans to increase recycling of disposable plastics, with one proposal being the provision of subsidies to waste management companies to help fund the construction of state-of-the-art recycling facilities.

“The reason for the build-up of waste plastic is a result of China’s ban on imports, so we are reinforcing the capacity of recycling facilities in Japan and we will now cover half the cost of introducing equipment to recycle plastics,” said Hiroaki Kaneko, deputy director of the ministry’s Recycling Promotion Division.

He said the budget for the initiative for this financial year is 1.5 billion yen (US$13.5 million).

“We are also carrying out efforts to raise public awareness, while local governments are conducting campaigns with private enterprises to encourage people to reduce the number of plastic bags they use, for example.”

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Environmental campaigners insist, however, that the problem of discarded plastic will not be solved until Japan ends widespread use of the material, which has myriad applications but does not decompose and is clogging the planet’s rivers and oceans.

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According to Japanese government statistics, cited by the Yomiuri newspaper, 510,000 tons of plastic waste was shipped to China every year before the restrictions were imposed. The figure has fallen to a mere 30,000 tons in the first five months of this year.

Japanese waste management firms do not have the specialist equipment to recycle these plastics, and consequently many no longer accept such shipments because they have nowhere to store it.

The Chinese government imposed limits on plastic waste imports – which were largely recycled into new products – because of growing awareness that some plastic waste contains toxic elements, therefore worsening China’s already serious pollution problems.

China’s rules on plastic imports are expected to be tightened again in December, with a ban on factory debris. Meanwhile, Thailand – a large receiver of Japan’s waste metals – is also preparing import restrictions of plastic trash over similar environmental concerns.

“The ministry is focusing on recycling plastic, but we want to address the problem before that point, the production of plastic,” said Akiko Tsuchiya, who campaigns for better public awareness of plastic pollution with the Japan branch of Greenpeace.

“Plastic is seen by Japanese people as being hygienic and practical in many situations, but we are trying to communicate to them the idea of carrying an eco-friendly bag when they go shopping rather than just taking a new plastic bag each time,” she said. “But we fear that it will take a long time to change people’s attitudes.”

There is no reason for Japanese companies not reuse, recycle or reduce the amount of plastic that they use, Tsuchiya said, pointing out that drinks giant Suntory Holdings became the first in Britain to introduce 100 per cent recycled plastic for its Ribena brand soft drinks back in 2007. In Japan, however, the company insists on only using fresh plastic for each bottle.

“It is cheaper for them to use virgin plastic on each bottle rather than recycled materials,” she said.