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Politics

Japan to start plastic bag fee before Tokyo Olympics

Supermarkets and other retailers lead shift toward biodegradable alternatives

Plastic bags are used about 200,000 tons a year in Japan.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government plans to introduce a fee for plastic bags at retail stores before the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games next year, a move it hopes will energize a shift away from single-use plastics.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko announced Saturday that the government wants to charge the fee as early as April 1. He said he will coordinate with the Environment Ministry and other relevant agencies to iron out specifics, such as the exact types of bags that will be affected.

The move is aimed at reducing plastic waste in the world's oceans, which is expected to be a main topic when world leaders meet at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka later this month. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants Japan to become a world leader in reducing marine plastic trash. 

While the country is not a major contributor to plastic trash in the world's oceans, Japan is second to the U.S. in the amount of plastic packaging used per person. The fee will likely do little to reduce Japan's plastic waste, since bags account for about 200,000 tons, or 2%, of the total annual volume. Still, "it will serve as a symbol for curbing single-use plastics," said Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada.

Some retailers have already begun voluntarily charging for plastic bags or have switched to alternatives like paper. Supermarkets, which have been at the forefront of the shift, welcomed the government's plans.

"If all stores introduce the same fees, it will be easier to get the customer's understanding," said Takaharu Iwasaki, president of supermarket operator Life.

Life and other supermarket chains started charging for plastic bags in 10 municipalities in Osaka Prefecture in June of last year. Over 70% of customers now bring their own bags, up from less than 30% a year ago.

"There are limits to what we can do voluntarily," said Atsushi Inoue, a director at the Japan Chain Stores Association. "I welcome the government's policy."

Seven-Eleven Japan announced in May that it would completely switch from plastic to biodegradable bags by 2030. "We will make our way forward in coordination with other companies," President Fumihiko Nagamatsu said.

Rival convenience store chains are making moves as well. Lawson aims to halve the use of plastic bags at the register by 2030, and will switch to alternatives made from sugar cane at certain locations. FamilyMart has cut per-store usage of plastic by about 30% from 2000 by using thinner bags.

Certain countries already ban stores from giving plastic bags out for free. The Japanese government hopes that having the fee in place before the Olympics will help boost Japan's international reputation on environmental issues. In another move to raise awareness, Japan is planning to make medal podiums at the Summer Games out of recycled plastic.

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