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Environment

Japan's plastic waste sees first rise in 2 decades on China ban

Chinese and Taiwanese processors seize opportunity as local peers hang back

Used plastic accumulates at a site in Tokyo partly because China stopped accepting it. (Photo by Keiichiro Sato)

TOKYO -- The amount of used plastic that Japan incinerated or buried grew for the first time in nearly two decades in 2018 after a Chinese ban on imports left domestic recyclers unable to keep up with a significantly larger load.

Of the 8.91 million tons of plastic waste generated by Japan in 2018, 1.42 million tons were disposed of rather than being reused or recycled into fuel, apparel or other goods, 140,000 tons more than in 2017, according to the Tokyo-based Plastic Waste Management Institute.

This marked the first increase since 2000, halting a steady decline fueled by advances in recycling technology.

The main culprit was China's 2017 decision to largely stop accepting imports of plastic waste. Japan shipped more than 1.3 million tons of scrap plastic overseas in 2017, with more than half bound for China, but the total dropped around 30% the following year owing to the ban.

A shortage of recycling facilities at home meant that more plastic ended up in incinerators or landfills.

The institute warns that unused plastic waste may have grown again in 2019. More countries are following China's lead and tightening standards for imports, including such Southeast Asian nations as Thailand and Vietnam. Malaysia said this month it had returned scrap plastic shipments from 13 countries including Japan.

The Environment Ministry here has urged recycling companies to add capacity to handle the extra plastic, but these businesses are leery of making big investments. Even if more plants bring in more profits in the short term, their value in the long term is questionable, as Japan's shrinking population will mean less waste to process.

Businesses from mainland China and Taiwan are showing more interest, particularly as China's regulations slash the inflow of scrap plastic there. Japan's well-established waste collection routes and sorting practices make recycling easier and less costly than elsewhere.

Far Eastern Ishizuka Green PET, a joint venture between Taiwanese conglomerate Far Eastern Group and a local partner, plans to boost annual sales of recycled plastic roughly 150% to 210,000 tons by 2030. It operates a processing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and intends to open another in western Japan.

Dafa Kanto, affiliated with a Chinese company, spent 2 billion yen ($18.3 million) to build two facilities in Saitama Prefecture outside Tokyo.

Though Japan's disposed-of plastic waste has fallen more than 70% by volume since 2000, further improvement will be needed as investors worldwide grow more environmentally conscious. The additional capacity provided by Chinese and Taiwanese companies will help Japan tackle this issue.

But it could come at the cost of a valuable resource. Demand is rising for recycled-plastic products, and foreign plastic processors may not necessarily sell the material they produce to Japanese buyers.

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