Japan’s single-use plastic problem on display at the G20 Summit

Image: Lisi Niesner/Reuters
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Japan is the world’s second-highest user per capita of plastic packaging, according to the United Nations Environment Program. It is also the host of this year’s G20 Summit, which begins Friday (June 28). Japan hopes at the meeting to showcase its efforts to deal with its plastic problem, symbolized by plans to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympic medals from recycled plastic. But experts say the country can’t recycle its way out of this mess, according to the Associated Press. It has to cut down on the demand for plastic in the first place.

Japan is notorious for wrapping nearly everything in plastic. Vegetables and fruits, in particular, are often individually-wrapped in stores. Several stories have focused on the nation’s habit, given the ongoing summit. And that’s great, in a way: It shows how far the global conversation has progressed on plastic-as-self-imposed-disaster.

But of course, Japan is hardly the only country where plastic-encased vegetables can be found in stores. The United States, in fact, uses more plastic packaging per person than Japan.

Ten years ago, when the US last hosted the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the US’s plastic use was just beginning to draw scrutiny. Recycling was still seen, more or less, as a decent approach to our ever-swelling piles of waste—despite the fact that the US was shipping much of its plastic to China, and that recycling merely slows plastic’s march to an ocean or landfill. The age of plastic-bag bans was still a few years off.

A decade later, not far from that Pittsburgh G20 Summit, US energy giant Shell is preparing to enter the ethane-cracking market. Shell is setting up a sprawling complex in Appalachia to turn ethane, a byproduct of natural gas, into even more plastic. Despite the glut of forever-materials now stuck in the US—because China has now decided to stop taking the stuff—the US is finding new ways to make brand-new batches of it.

It’s possible that there are fewer plastic-cloaked apples in US supermarkets than in Japan. But overall, there are more similarities than differences in the two countries’ approaches to plastic waste. Just last summer, Japan chose not to sign a G7 ocean plastics charter. The United States was the only other G7 country not to sign.

Japan has set a goal to reduce the 10.4 million tons (9.4 million metric tonnes) of single-use plastic it produces by 25% by 2030. “We believe there is room to reduce that volume and we are now considering ways to do that,” Kentaro Doi, director of plastic waste strategy at Japan’s environment ministry, told the Agence France-Presse. The US, meanwhile, has not set any national targets for plastic.

In comparison, the EU, which collectively holds third place for most plastic packaging used per capita, passed a sweeping bill set to completely ban several categories of single-use plastics in all member states by 2021. And companies that use packaging or plastic components for their products will be required to pay for their cleanup, among other provisions in the new legislation.

Japan’s effort also includes plans to charge customers for single-use plastic bags, which would go into effect in 2020 “at the earliest,” according to Doi. Meanwhile, plastic bag bans have already proliferated globally, with several African countries leading the way. “Other countries were ahead of us,” Doi told the AFP. The US has not instituted a coast-to-coast plastic bag ban either, though some cities have individually jumped on the bandwagon.

But plastic bags, clearly, are only part of the problem.