March 31, 2008


More Shops Stop Offering Free Plastic Bags More People Bring Their Own Shopping Bags

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.67 (March 2008)

In the past, Japanese people brought their own shopping bags or baskets to market. Retailers wrapped vegetables in newspaper folded into a cone, fish in newspaper and meat in bamboo-shoot bark, and put them in the shoppers' bags or baskets. To buy tofu, people brought a bowl or pan to the tofu shop.

Plastic bags are said to have been invented around 1965. In 1972, a company in Shikoku Island, Japan, patented a plastic carry similar the ones generally used today; thus, the shape of plastic bags commonly used throughout the world today was created in Japan. In the 1970s, large numbers of plastic bags came into use because they were durable, water-proof, light, easy to use and reasonably priced.

Since then, the most common shopping style is now for customers to take articles from the shelf, pay for everything at a cash register, and put the articles in plastic bags to carry home. Since convenience stores began to proliferate nationwide in the 1980s, it became common for the cashier to put all articles in a free plastic bag, even a single pack of chewing gum.

The bags generally used today are made of polyethylene. How many plastic bags do you think are used in Japan? The following calculation is based on data from the Japan Polyolefin Film Industry Trade Association.

In 2006, domestic production of plastic shopping bags amounted to 139,000 tons. Assuming that half the polyethylene bags annually imported into Japan are used as shopping bags, this would mean that 240,000 tons of imported plastic bags are used for shopping in Japan, bringing the total to about 380,000 tons of plastic bags being used annually for shopping in Japan. One plastic bag is said to weigh 7 to 9 grams. Considering that convenience stores use a large number of small plastic bags, let us assume that one plastic bag weighs an average of 7.5 grams. This would mean that the Japanese people use about 50 billion plastic bags per year, that is, one Japanese person consumes 420 plastic bags per year, or at least one plastic bag a day!

In addition, if the energy used in the whole process of producing a 7.5-gram plastic bag (that is, starting from raw material preparation to resin production and shaping) is converted into crude oil equivalent, data from the Plastic Waste Management Institute yields a figure of 14 milliliters of crude oil needed per bag. To produce one plastic bag requires a shot glass worth of crude oil. Therefore, the plastic bag problem is a serious resource problem.

Plastic bags from stores are often re-used at home as garbage bags, but we also see many bags littering the street. Sometimes fish and turtles accidentally eat plastic bags floating on the sea and die. According to a survey by Kyoto City, plastic bags accounted for 6 percent of household garbage. Plastic bags are partly responsible for the garbage problem, which is reaching serious proportions throughout Japan as its landfill capacity rapidly shrinks.

There was a time when reducing plastic bag use was considered a measure for solving the garbage problem. It is now considered a measure for tackling global warming. Currently, there is a growing trend to reduce plastic bag use in Japan, which has been attracting international attention. This has encouraged many people to cut down on plastic bag use.

The plastic bag problem is not only a garbage or resource problem. The attempt to reduce plastic bag use is a new movement promoted collectively by governments, industries and citizens. For citizens, it is an opportunity to review what they really need, and show by their action that they are determined not to waste things.

Let's look back at how the movement has evolved over the last several years. In November 2001, Sayama City in Saitama Prefecture came up with the idea of establishing a No Plastic Bag Day, the first such initiative in Japan. With the cooperation by local stores, the city called on residents to bring their own shopping bags to market on the designated day. Stores participated in the campaign by putting up the city's posters, making announcements about it in their stores, giving out leaflets and so forth. On the designated day, they gave customers who did not bring a shopping bag a leaflet describing the initiative and a message from the city government.

See also:
Working to Reduce Plastic Bag Use

In March 2002, Suginami Ward in Tokyo made the national news when the ward government decided to introduce a plastic shopping bag tax. The ward government, however, included a condition that the tax would not be introduced if the number of plastic shopping bags consumed could be reduced by a certain date. Its first campaign to encourage consumers was the "Suginami Eco Sticker Program," launched in November 2002 with the cooperation of local stores. In this program, shoppers refusing a plastic bag from local participating stores receive a small sticker. A shopping certificate with 25 stickers could be exchanged for a 100-yen (about US$1.00) purchase at these stores.

Hello! Suginami
Please cooperate in the Suginami Sticker Program (Page 8)

Retailers also have taken their own initiatives. In October 2002, the Shinagawa Shopping Streets Federation in Shinagawa Ward in Tokyo kicked off a "No plastic shopping bag campaign." In the campaign, shoppers receive a coin whenever they say "No" to a plastic bag offered by participating stores; the coins are collected and exchanged for coupons that can be used in the same stores.

Retailers' activities to reduce the amount of plastic shopping bags given away can be roughly categorized into the following types: (1) asking shoppers if they need a bag, (2) giving shoppers who refuse a bag a sticker or the like that can be collected used as a coupon, (3) providing reusable shopping bags to customers, and (4) charging for plastic shopping bags.

Giving away fewer plastic shopping bags means reduced cost for the store. However, most retailers have not taken the next step - charging for plastic shopping bags - although this is the most effective measure. They are afraid that taking such a bold measure may turn shoppers away. Therefore, they have focused on more modest measures such as asking shoppers if they need a plastic bag, giving out stickers, etc. or providing reusable shopping bags.

In the early stage of the movement, supermarkets and other retailers proceeded independently with their own activities to reduce plastic bags, but an increasing number of retailers and local governments are working together to tackle the problem. The pioneer in this area has been Toyota City in Aichi Prefecture, which launched a sticker program in 2000. The Toyota City My Shopping Bag Campaign (Eco Life) Promotion Council (currently renamed the Toyota Eco Life Club) is run by the city government together with local retailers and other groups, and created a city-wide scheme to reduce plastic bag use. In this scheme, shoppers refusing a plastic bag at participating stores get an Eco Sticker; 20 stickers can be exchanged for a 100-yen coupon that can be used in participating stores or for local bus fares.

In June 2006, the revised Containers and Packaging Recycling Law was enacted and promulgated. With this law serving as a springboard, these isolated efforts by individual retailers and local communities evolved into a national movement. During deliberations on the law's revision, whether or not to introduce a system of mandatory charges for plastic shopping bags was discussed. Despite support from a supermarket industry group, the Japan Chain Store Association, this type of system was not included in the revised law due to the opposition of the Japan Franchise Association, a convenience store industry group, and the Japan Department Stores Association.

However, the revised law did include some measures to reduce plastic bag use. For example, the law states that the government urges retailers that use a large amount of plastic bags (and other containers and packaging) to make efforts to cut back by setting up targets to rationalize use, charging for the bags and packaging, providing shoppers with reusable shopping bags and so forth, based on national government guidelines. Also, according to the law, businesses that use 50 tons or more of containers and packaging annually must now report to the government every year on their efforts and activities to reduce the amount of containers and packaging they use.

The Ministry of the Environment has hosted the Japan Forum for the Promotion of 3R (3R = Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) Activities every year since 2006. Together with the national government's Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, it has also run an "environment-friendly shopping" campaign since 2003. In addition, the Environment Ministry established a program called the Containers and Packaging Waste 3R Promotion Model Project to promote and publicize best 3R practices. In its first year, the ministry chose as a model project the Suginami City "Regi Bag (plastic shopping bag)" Reduction Promotion Council, which promotes reduced plastic bag use through a system of charging for bags and other measures. As a result, the ratio of shoppers who bring their own bags to shops increased from 43 percent to 85 percent in Suginami Ward, and consequently the amount of plastic bag use decreased by 80 percent.

Creation of a Forum for the promotion of 3R Activities in Japan

Following these trends, in June 2006 the Japan Franchise Association launched an initiative to have its 12 member convenience stores always ask customers whether or not they want a plastic bag, with the aim of reducing plastic bag consumption in their stores by 35 percent as compared to the fiscal 2000 level by fiscal 2010. Meanwhile, Japanese hamburger chain Mos Food Services, Inc. and convenience store chain Lawson Inc. concluded an agreement with the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in September 2006 that comprised a voluntary tie-up between the government and the businesses to further promote the businesses' environmental conservation efforts. Prior to the agreement, in July 2006 Mos Food began to phase out plastic shopping bags and offer paper bags instead at all of its approximately 1,500 stores. Meanwhile, Lawson plans to reduce the use of plastic bags by 35 percent by fiscal 2008.

In 2007, one Japanese supermarket chain after the other, including Aeon Co., Izumiya Co., Tokyu Store Corp. and Ito Yokado Co., began to charge for plastic bags at some of their stores. Other related activities, such as introducing a point system for shoppers who refuse plastic bags, distributing reusable bags, and so on gradually became more common at supermarkets nationwide. In November 2007 the Kyoto University Consumer Cooperative (CO-OP) abolished the use of plastic bags in principle, and in January 2008 a Lawson store located at the same university campus did the same.

Currently, about 10 municipalities are promoting campaigns to charge for plastic bags under voluntary agreements between the municipalities, civic groups, residents and businesses. Another eight or so municipalities plan to follow suit in the first half of this year. Meanwhile, the municipal government of Sado City, located on Sado Island (in Niigata Prefecture) and with a population of about 68,000, has taken an initiative in which all stores on the entire island charge for plastic bags. This is Japan's first region-wide initiative to charge for the bags.

In March 2008, Machida City, Tokyo, launched the first municipality-level effort in Japan to abolish the use of plastic bags. In response to the request of a civic group, Zero Waste Statement Association, Sanwa Co., a Machida-based supermarket chain, decided to experimentally abolish the use of plastic bags, which led the city, the civic group, and the retailer to sign an agreement on the tentative abandonment of plastic bags. Under the agreement, Sanwa is supposed to refrain from offering any plastic bags, free or otherwise, to shoppers over the next six months. After that, the three entities will undertake a survey of shoppers' reactions, opinions, and levels of cooperation and satisfaction, and then consider measures to further promote the campaign based on the survey results.

These examples are an indication of how the situation surrounding plastic bag use is gradually changing throughout the nation. Although people once took it for granted that they would receive plastic bags and cashiers assumed they should offer the bags as a service provided by the stores, according to a questionnaire survey of retailers conducted in March 2007 regarding the effect of charging for bags on their sales, 64.8 percent of respondents said that their sales were not affected, and 7.7 percent said their sales on the contrary increased.

Many stores and local governments engaged in plastic bag reduction campaigns are showing satisfactory results. Examples include Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture, which plans to have all shops and stores throughout the city charge for plastic bags starting in fiscal 2010. By doing so, the city aims to reduce plastic bag consumption by 60 percent to 600 million bags (4,200 tons by weight), from the one billion bags (7,000 tons) currently used in the city. Midori Ward, designated as a model area by the city, already has all stores in the ward charge for plastic bags. As a result, a total of 8.63 million bags were saved over four months starting in October 2007, cutting an estimated 345 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the ward reported.

Municipalities can help advance these efforts on the regional level if their citizens understand the need to reduce bag use and switch to charging for bags, and if municipalities play a coordinating role to help retailers act in concert with one another. We hope that municipalities' efforts will provide some good examples for collaboration among the national and local governments, businesses, and citizens. At the same time, it is our hope that these approaches will give individuals more opportunities - that is, every time they shop - to perceive that their lifestyle has an impact on the Earth and that they can potentially help change the situation. With these hopes, we will continue focusing on approaches for plastic bag reduction in Japan.

(Written by Junko Edahiro)