Japan can't escape the "plastic curse"

Japan can't escape the "plastic curse"

    A business operator engaged in garbage collection and treatment in the Kanto region issued a sigh of relief. The plastic waste in his garbage collection station has piled up into mountains, up to 5 meters, far exceeding the dangerous level of the storage standards stipulated by the waste disposal law.

"Global" magazine reporter / Yang Ting (from Tokyo)

All countries in the world are facing serious risks of plastic pollution. Japan, which is known for its waste sorting and recycling of plastics, is no exception.

According to Japanese media reports, all parts of Japan are now full of plastic waste. An important reason is that the former export destinations of used plastics were mainly imported. "Yomiuri Shimbun" reported that a business operator engaged in garbage collection and treatment in the Kanto region issued a sorrow, and the plastic garbage in his garbage collection station has piled up into mountains, up to 5 meters, far exceeding the waste disposal law. The hazard level of the custody standard.

At the G7 summit held not long ago, the Japanese government refused to sign the "Marine Plastics Charter" proposed by the European Union and was widely criticized by public opinion at home and abroad.

How will Japan get out of the plastic dilemma?
“plastic curse”的图片搜索结果
Whale warning

July 16 is Japan's "Ocean Day." On the same day, two news stories were brought up by many Japanese mainstream media.

One was in February this year, when a dead whale was rushed to the coast of Spain. After dissection, 47 kinds of garbage and fishing nets such as plastic bags, plastic bottles and umbrellas weighing 29 kg were found in the body. It is the cause of death of this whale because it cannot be eaten because of garbage accumulation.

The other is the findings of the research team at the National University of Ireland. They found that in the depths of 300 to 600 meters below the Atlantic Ocean far from the land, 70% of deep sea fish have plastic fine particles. These fish, including tuna, dolphins, etc., will also affect the birds and humans that feed on them through the food chain.

Following these two news is some shocking data.

As early as the second half of the 1990s, the “Pacific Garbage Belt” drifting in the Pacific Ocean was found to be about four times the size of Japan.

The 2016 World Economic Forum Annual Conference report shows that at least 8 million tons of plastic waste flows to the ocean every year. The amount of garbage floating on the ocean has exceeded 150 million tons, and it is expected to exceed the total weight of marine fish by 2050.

According to the report of the United Nations Environment Program, according to the amount of plastic waste discarded per capita (2015), the United States ranks first with 45 kg, and Japan has 32 kg, ranking second; so far, about 9 billion tons of plastic products manufactured in the world. Only 9% are recycled...

Status and issues

According to data from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, 60% of Japan's plastic waste is recycled, and the rest are burned or landfilled as combustibles and incombustibles. The part that is recycled is mainly beverage plastic bottles and food packaging, which is called “container and packaging resource garbage”.

According to the "Container Packaging Recycling Law", which was fully implemented in Japan in 2000, each local government separately collects the above-mentioned garbage, and then reuses it to make other plastic products. However, it is worth noting that 60% of the plastic waste that is recycled and reused is not recycled in Japan but exported to developing countries.

The premise of recycling is classification. Beverage plastic bottles, food packaging, and other "containers and packaging" type of garbage are marked with "PET" surrounded by triangles, which need to be washed and reduced in size, and placed on the specified date, waiting for recycling. At the same time, general plastic products, such as plastic toys, disposable plastic cups, toothbrushes, etc., as well as large plastic boxes, are not included in the recycling range.

On the garbage collection websites of various local governments in Japan, there are also guidelines for people to wash and reduce the volume of “containers and packaging”. For example, plastic bottles should be separated from plastic wrappers, caps and bottles. The bottles should be washed and gently flattened, and the wrappers, bottles and caps should be placed separately. In addition, there are clear requirements for the “container and packaging” garbage bags. For example, the garbage bags should be transparent, not double-folded, etc., as well as bags for the sale of plastic container garbage.

According to the Ministry of the Environment, the above-mentioned “container and packaging” garbage accounts for 60% of Japanese household plastic waste. For other plastic waste, the Ministry of the Environment of Japan is further exploring the possibility of its reuse. It is planned to develop a comprehensive strategy for reducing disposable plastic products and recycling, “Plastic Resource Recycling Strategy” by 2019. The contents include: reducing the use of disposable containers; thoroughly recycling and reusing used plastics; strengthening the development of plant-based bioplastics and transforming the production of plastics based on fossil fuels.

The plastic waste newly added to be recycled includes: toys, stationery, groceries, CDs, video tapes, plastic cups, print cartridges, and so on. For the recycling of the above-mentioned plastic waste, the same community sharding and recycling mode as conventional garbage has not been adopted. Instead, the Ministry of the Environment of Japan cooperates with enterprises and commercial facilities to set up recycling bins in shopping malls, supermarkets, and retail stores.

Such a recycling bin was set up in a glasses store in Musashino, Tokyo. Shop manager Ito said that the store has been equipped with old glasses recycling bins since 2013. Some customers have taken six pairs of old glasses at a time. There are also plastic products that customers can't afford to throw away, and ask if they can be recycled. According to the statistics of the Ministry of the Environment, in the above-mentioned recycling site as a test, the store has the largest amount of recycling.

However, Japan has not yet determined the specific recycling target of the above-mentioned new plastic wastes to be recycled. The most difficult problem is the difficulty and cost of recycling. Toys, stationery, miscellaneous goods and other products are different from plastic bottles and food packaging, and some are combined with other materials such as metal, which need to be decomposed, etc., which requires additional costs. For example, glasses need to separate lenses and metal parts.

According to estimates by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, for the plastic products newly listed for recycling, if they are slashed and recycled in the same community as general garbage, the classification and recycling cost per kilogram can be up to 63 yen (about 3.7 yuan). The recycling cost of 53 yen (about 3.1 yuan) for plastic bottles and food packaging is about 19% higher.

Plastics-related industry groups believe that the quality of plastic waste other than containers and packaging is uneven, and the proportion of total waste is not large. Considering the burden and cost, even if the rules are formulated, it may not be implemented for a long time. Recycling companies also said that due to the lack of recycling experience for new inclusions and increased costs, they are worried about the impact of other waste recycling operations.

In addition, the amendments to the Coastal Drift Processing Promotion Act jointly submitted by Japanese inter-party parliamentarians were also adopted at the Senate plenary meeting in June this year and are planned to be implemented this summer. The main content is to appeal to the public not to use cleansing products and toothpaste containing fine particles, and call on the industry to strengthen the reuse of plastic waste. However, this is not legally mandatory and only stays at the level of “work obligation”.

Is it fundamental to reduce garbage?

At the G7 summit in June, the European Union proposed the Marine Plastics Charter, which includes specific numerical targets and initiatives to ban 100% disposable plastic products by 2030 and 100% recycling by 2040.

Disposable plastic products that are included in the object include: plastic straws, plastic sticks, swabs, cutlery, utensils, plastic handles for balloons, and other plastic products that cannot be recycled. It is not difficult to find that the idea of the Marine Plastics Charter is to reduce waste.

At the G7 summit, Japan and the United States refused to sign the charter on the grounds of "possibly affecting life and industry and need to be carefully considered", which led to strong media criticism.

Japan's "Daily News" pointed out that the problem of marine litter has become a new global environmental issue and is the main issue of the G7. The government must respond with a stronger sense of crisis. The Asahi Shimbun also criticized that this issue had already begun to be discussed at the G7 summit three years ago. The Japanese government still claims to be domestically coordinated and lacks persuasiveness. Paying attention to the attitude of the industry rather than the environment is detrimental to the image of Japan.

Japanese folks have a strong sense of reducing plastic waste. When shopping in supermarkets and convenience stores, many people choose not to use plastic bags. There are also many calls for reducing plastic waste on online forums and social media. Others have written a guide on how to reduce plastic waste: first check what kind of garbage is produced every day, and generally find plastic bottles and plastic foam trays for packaging vegetables, so pay attention to reduce the purchase of such goods; The second is to reduce one-time bulk purchases, because bulk goods tend to pack more, and small purchases can use their own bags and containers; the third is not to eat processed foods, reduce the purchase of new things, and thus reduce the overall purchase and consumption, etc. Wait.

In addition to causing marine pollution, the prices of resources such as petroleum used to make plastics tend to rise in the long run, and resources are becoming less and less. Therefore, reducing waste generation and effectively utilizing resource waste are equally important to all members of the international community.

Koji Dao, an economist at the Asian Economic Research Institute of the Japan External Trade Organization, said: "In the long run, we must increase the proportion of recycling while reducing the amount of plastic waste generated."

If considering the sustainable development of the industry, what kind of material is used for beverage packaging?

According to a report from the University of Cambridge, beverages can only be placed on the market in the most sustainable way – packaging can be recycled and reused, but overall the impact on the environment is minimal. But what kind of idea is the best choice?

The report, published by the University of Cambridge's Sustainable Development Leadership Institute (CISL), represents a group of bottled water brands including Danone, Nestle and Suntory. The report presents a vision for all bottled water and soft drink packaging. Made from 100% recyclable or recyclable materials, this results in the phasing out of non-recyclable and difficult-to-recycle plastics.

But it also wants to see the best but the way to minimize the impact on packaging in the beverage industry, taking into account the entire life cycle of a product.

The report said: Industry and government should work together to optimize material selection for soft drink packaging. This can be achieved through an innovative process that ensures that soft drinks are only marketed in the best packaging that can be recycled or reused based on agreed goals and dynamic industry standards, but this also has the lowest impact on the overall environment.

Action requirement

According to the report, manufacturers are already innovating to reduce the amount of plastic used in bottled water and soft drink packaging, which should continue to ensure that it is 100% recyclable or reusable.

The "Towards Sustainable Packaging" report was published by CISL on behalf of the Future of Plastic Packaging Group. Its members include: Brecon Mineral Water, Danone Water (UK and Ireland), Harrogate Water Brand, Highland Spring Group, Lucozade Ribena Suntory, Montgomery Waters, Nature Hydration Council, Nestlé, UK, Shepley Spring and Wenlock Spring. The report was also reviewed by the independent expert group.

Plastic packaging that is difficult to recycle should be discontinued immediately.

But the report also said that it should also conduct a comprehensive study of the best materials for bottled water and soft drink packaging to eliminate plastic waste while ensuring the lowest net impact on the environment.

Packaging materials can be considered plastic (PET / laminate), non-plastic (glass, aluminum, carton) and biomaterials.

This will create a design list that sets industry standards based on the characteristics of the ideal material for soft drink packaging and provides innovative funding to research and identify new materials based on that industry standard.

But the report also warns that because of the complexity of the parameters, there is no quick fix.

Plastic: currently available materials

In the UK, approximately 72% of soft drinks are packaged in PET/plastics, which is as high as 92% in the bottled water industry and 67% in sports and energy drinks.

The proportion of recyclable PET (rPET) currently used to produce this package is unclear as there is no formal report in the industry.

According to the report, according to a recent commitment from bottled water and soft drinks companies, a 2017 report pointed out that five of the world's six international soft drink companies use 6.6% of rPET, but the actual figure may be much higher than this figure. .

According to the report, 74% of the PET/plastic beverage bottles sold in the UK are recycled from the roadside, which is the highest recovery rate among all soft beverage packaging materials.

Most British bottled water and soft drink companies have set a goal to ensure 100% recycling of all packaging by 2025, in line with the goals of the UK Plastics Agreement.

In addition, many companies aim to increase the proportion of recyclables from 25% in 2020 to 50% in 2025.

Although Highland Spring is testing 100% rPET 'green bottles', few people will 100% recycle, and Ribena has 100% rPET bottles since 2007.

The report said that to increase the use of rPET, it is necessary to increase investment and ambition.

For all plastic soft drinks, even if they contain 70% recyclable, there are some challenges to overcome, such as increasing the supply and quality of recycled materials and making rPET commercially viable.

Based on current technology, it is only expected that by 2030, 70% to 90% of recycling is possible, however, setting a higher target can drive the innovation needed to achieve 100% recycled content.

Advantages and disadvantages of plastics

From plastic pipettes to secondary packaging, plastics are no longer used. But can this guarantee the success of sustainable development?

In the process of eliminating plastic packaging waste, one option is to replace the material, and this has already happened. Some soft drinks are now replaced with cardboard in plastic packaging.

Plastic straws from food and beverage vendors are being replaced by metal, bamboo and paper. Some retailers only offer soft drinks in glass or aluminum, and more and more “zero waste” stores are emerging.

In making this transition, companies need to ensure that they understand the full impact of any alternatives to ensure they do not produce any other potentially worse environmental consequences.

A study estimates that the overall environmental cost of using plastics in the soft drink industry is nearly four and a half times lower than the cost of replacing plastics with alternative materials such as aluminum, paper and glass.

For plastic bottles, Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) consistently emphasizes its low carbon footprint, and glass bottles need to be reused at least 20 times with carbon emissions that are the same as current PET beverage bottles.

However, some current assessment methods and studies do not necessarily take into account the effects of dying. This includes how to deal with an item, and if it is not handled properly, what effect it will have on the environment.

Further research can not only help companies understand the net impact of existing materials on the environment, but also develop a new LCA tool to provide reference for future packaging design.


The report also said that bioplastics seem to have good prospects, but there are still many unknowns.

Bottled water and soft drink companies are exploring opportunities to produce bottles using plant materials, some of which are already on the market. However, although made from natural materials, bioPET bottles have the same properties as petroleum-derived PET bottles, and if they enter the environment, they are also subject to plastic contamination.

Biodegradable materials that decompose in environmental or composting facilities offer another potential opportunity to explore its feasibility.

Existing innovations include the preservation of potable water in edible films and bottles made from paper that can be completely decomposed within three weeks.

However, there are still some unknown factors in biodegradable materials that need to be fully explored to determine if they can provide a scale solution for soft drink packaging.

Most require a specific control environment to break down, such as in industrial composting facilities, so implementing on a scale requires the use of national infrastructure that is currently unavailable.

Some of these, such as polylactic acid (PLA) biodegradables, look like traditional plastics, so they may be treated by recycling rather than degradable waste, which may contaminate the post-treatment of PET. Biodegradable materials, although made from renewable materials, can only provide a linear (self-managing) solution because they require sufficient natural ingredients to produce. Although compostable, the decomposed product cannot currently be used to make new biodegradable products.