“it takes a worldwide commitment not to increase but to reduce plastics flowing into the seas”

Protecting our oceans

The EU and Japan get serious about the plastic problem


Text by Gavin Blair

A slew of horrifying statistics — and a video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose — have helped raise awareness of the danger posed by disposable plastic over the past few years. Some 275 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced annually around the globe, with an estimated eight million tonnes of that ending up in the oceans. One report forecasts that if the current trends continue, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than fish.

Although governments, companies and individuals have been galvanised into taking some steps to address the problem, measures being taken vary considerably. Europe is leading on the issue where roughly 30% of plastic is recycled across the region, a significantly higher proportion than elsewhere. Japan is moving slower in introducing meaningful policies; Asia accounts for around half of the world’s plastic usage.

In October, the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a proposal for legislation that will ban some of the most common single-use plastic products by 2021. It also calls for 90% of plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025.

“It is essential in order to protect the marine environment and reduce the costs of environmental damage attributed to plastic pollution in Europe, estimated at €22 billion, by 2030,” said Frederique Ries, the member of European Parliament who proposed the bill.

Under the planned legislation member states will have to reduce plastic currently in use, including polystyrene fast-food containers, by 25% by 2025. However, other types of plastic, such as containers for fruit, vegetables and ice cream, will not be banned. This has led some environmental groups to say the measures don’t go far enough. With nearly half of all plastic produced annually going into packaging — and 900 billion packaged food items predicted to be sold in Europe in 2020 — that still leaves a lot of plastic.

In Japan, where the need for elaborate packaging appears to be culturally ingrained, the Ministry of the Environment has proposed making it compulsory to charge for plastic shopping bags. The ministry is to begin discussions with other agencies this year, with a view to introducing new rules in 2020. It is also targeting a 25% reduction in the use of disposable plastic products by 2030, though it looks unlikely to be binding.

However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did broach the issue in his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

“At the deepest spot of the Pacific Ocean we now find something terrible going on: the bodies of small sea fleas … hold toxic PCB contaminants in very high density,” he said. “I would like to build a shared sense that it takes a worldwide commitment not to increase but to reduce plastics flowing into the seas. There is absolutely no need to restrain our economic activities. Innovation … is what counts.”

An estimated 45 billion single-use plastic bags are handed out annually by shops in Japan, with convenience stores accounting for around 30% of that. Some stores in Japan have been charging for plastic bags for years, while other companies are attempting to eliminate their use completely.

Metro Cash & Carry Japan has been charging for plastic bags since 2009 and is planning to reintroduce its own reusable eco-bag in the spring, though many of its customers use cardboard boxes as they usually purchase in bulk.

As well as aiming to have all the company’s cardboard, paper and wood materials coming from sustainable sources, it is also working to reduce the use of plastics. This includes a plan to, “eliminate expanded polystyrene from all packaging, saving a total of 300 tonnes of plastic globally over the next five years,” according to Metro’s Shoko Ochi.

Since 2014, the Dusseldorf-based wholesale and food specialist has already saved some 400 tonnes of material by optimising the packaging on 11,000 of its own-brand items.

“We are working globally step-by-step to reduce the plastic packaging of our own-brand products,” adds Ochi. “In addition, we are committed to switching to reusable or recyclable alternatives for all our packaging by 2025.”

Swedish clothing retailer H&M has also introduced initiatives to reduce its plastic footprint, including charging for shopping bags and transitioning from plastic to paper ones. This switch is a global policy that was implemented in Japan in December, with profits from the sales of bags going to wilderness preservation organisation WWF Japan. In the first month, the use of shopping bags fell by almost half, according to Shige Yamaura, CSR coordinator at H&M Japan.

Globally, H&M has also been using recycled polyester in its clothing, utilising the equivalent of 100 million plastic bottles in 2017. It is also working on ways to stop microfibres from clothes entering the water supply — another major environmental danger — including by offering a special laundry bag that catches the fibres while clothing is being washed.

Swedish furniture giant IKEA is also actively helping to reduce plastic usage. It will have removed all single-use plastic products — including straws, freezer bags, garbage bags and plastic-coated paper plates and cups — from its range by the beginning of 2020.

“IKEA is on a journey to be circular in all aspects, from product development, sourcing materials, developing the supply chain, and logistics to how and where we meet our customers,” says Akiko Kato of IKEA Japan. “As part of this, we must find innovative ways to work with renewable and recycled materials and prolong the life of products … IKEA is committed to phasing out virgin fossil plastic from products by 2030.”

Carl Eklund, president of the Japan operations of metal powder specialists Höganäs — yet another Swedish firm — says there are no specific regulations on reducing plastic use from the Japanese authorities, but believes, “there are some guidelines possibly on the way.”

Also chair of the EBC Materials Committee, Eklund says there have been discussions on tackling the problem, but no policy has yet been decided.

“It’s a huge issue,” he states. “We need to think outside the box.” 

“we are committed to switching to reusable or recyclable alternatives for all our packaging by 2025”