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Sea change: Japanese leads on marine plastic litter

Sea change: Japanese leads on marine plastic litter
Michikazu Kojima and Fusanori Iwasaki 26 October 2019

Marine plastic litter has been recognised as one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges in recent years and several international forums have started to take action on the issue. In June 2019, G20 member countries agreed on the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision at the Osaka summit. Japan led the way in concluding the Vision, by which G20 countries aim to reduce additional marine plastic pollution to zero by 2050.

But last year Japan, together with the United States, did not agree to adopt the Ocean Plastics Charter at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada. Why did Japan lead the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, while refusing to sign the Ocean Plastics Charter in 2018?

The Ocean Plastics Charter declared that G7 leaders would commit to action towards a resource-efficient, lifecycle management approach to plastics in their economies. This would be done through sustainable design, production and after-use markets; better waste collection and management; promoting sustainable lifestyles and education; more research, innovation and new technologies; and coastal and shoreline action.

Although it did not sign the charter, Japan has been making efforts to reduce plastic waste since the 1990s. In 1991 it enacted the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources, requiring businesses to make better use of recycled materials and to design easily recyclable products. Between 1995 and 2002 Japan also developed five new recycling laws focussed on packaging, home appliances, food waste, construction waste and automobiles. Collaboration between local government and the private sector has also reduced the use of single-use plastics — especially plastic bags.

Japan has also led the way in promoting better waste management in Asia and the Pacific. After implementing domestic regulations, the Japanese government proposed the 3R Initiative — reduce, reuse and recycle — at the G8 summit in 2004. After some preparatory meetings, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (MOEJ) and United Nations Centre for Regional Development (UNCRD) organised the Inaugural Regional 3R Forum in Asia in 2009. The conference has been held in an Asian or Pacific country almost every year since.

These domestic and international efforts show that Japan is capable of leading the international movement to solve plastics issues. So why didn’t Japan sign the charter?

On 14 June 2018, just five days after the G7 summit, the Minister of the Environment, Masaharu Nakagawa, explained Japan’s decision when responding to questions from a member of the opposition party during a session of the House of Councillors’ Committee on Environment.

The opposition member condemned the decision for its backward attitude and voiced criticism from domestic environmentalist groups. Minister Nakagawa replied: ‘Due to concrete contents such as setting a numerical target with a term limit in the charter, Japan decided to forgo participation because we need to consider its potential impact on daily life and industry in order to realise the reduction of use of all kinds of plastics, including household items’. But he added that ‘Japan shares the same enthusiasm for reducing plastic waste that the charter aims for’.

After the G7 summit, Japan redoubled its efforts to combat plastic waste. The Japanese government had already begun working on a Comprehensive Strategy for Plastic Material-Cycling in the lead-up to the G7 summit in 2018 and published the draft paper in October that year. The final document was launched at the end of May 2019.

Just months before the G20 meetings began, reducing marine plastic emerged as a key agenda item. In a meeting with United States President Donald Trump in April 2019, Prime Minister Abe again picked up the marine plastics issue. A month later, Abe gave a speech introducing the issue as one of three main agenda items for the coming G20 summit.

Between 15–16 June Japan hosted the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth in Karuizawa. At this meeting, G20 ministers agreed to establish the epochal G20 Implementation Framework for Actions on Marine Plastic Litter. This would facilitate the implementation of the G20 Action Plan on Marine Litter — originally launched at the G20 Hamburg summit in 2017 — through voluntary national action.

During the past year the Japanese government faced domestic and external pressures to show its positive attitude towards the marine plastics issue. In response, it gradually prioritised this issue as one of the main agenda items of its G20 presidency. It has implemented the Strategy for Plastic Material-Cycling and adopted an action plan as a result of inter-ministerial coordination.

In 2018, Japan decided not to sign the Ocean Plastics Charter with the United States. It is possible that the Japanese government considered the fact that the Trump administration has backtracked on environmentally friendly regulations.

Despite having both the experience and the capacity, Japan was not ready to lead the fight against marine plastics litter in 2018. But thanks to an increase in public concern, the Japanese government has since increased its efforts. Its commitment to the Osaka Blue Vision in 2019 signals a shift towards more sustainable practices across the region.

Michikazu Kojima is Senior Economist and Fusanori Iwasaki is Senior Research Associate at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), Jakarta.