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Environment

Japanese retailers divided on plan for mandatory plastic bag fees

Govt wants to cut plastic bag use by 25%, but small stores worry about costs

Seven-Eleven Japan will not have to charge customers for plastic bags at its 21,000-plus stores as they use enough bioplastic materials to qualify for exemption.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan’s plan to introduce mandatory fees on plastic shopping bags from July 2020 is creating a rift in the country’s retail industry. The details of the proposal risk putting small businesses at a disadvantage and complicating its implementation.

The current proposal exempts bags with smaller environmental impacts from the additional charges. Convenience stores welcome the exceptions, but supermarkets and department stores oppose them.

The goal is to make Japan -- where plastic bags are routinely handed out for even the smallest purchase -- a greener consumer society by the Tokyo Olympics. The split between retailers like supermarkets and department stores on the one hand, and convenience stores on the other, will likely make it more difficult for the government to implement its plan on time.

An advisory panel to the economy ministry and the Environment Ministry on Nov. 1 reached a basic agreement on a plastic bag levy with three categories of exemptions. Bags will be exempt from the charge if they are biomass plastic bags containing 25% or more plant-derived materials, bags 0.05 millimeters thick or more, or biodegradable plastic bags that are decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.

These exemptions are designed to promote eco-friendly alternatives to plastics, according to the experts, who said thicker bags tend to be used repeatedly and are less harmful to the environment.

Last year, the government set out to cut the use of single-use plastic bags in response to growing concerns about plastic pollution in the oceans and other environmental problems. The government has targeted a 25% reduction in plastic bag consumption by 2030.

Retailers will have to independently adjust to the new fee system by adapting checkout systems and training employees.

Kahori Miyake, an executive officer at retail conglomerate Aeon, warned the exceptions for different bags will not be consumer-friendly.

"At small and mid-sized supermarkets, in particular, increasing the types of bags used will cause confusion at checkout counters," Miyake said. If different tenants at large shopping centers adopt different approaches to dealing with the new rules, things will get quite complicated, she added.

Department stores do not have enough time to prepare for the change, an official at the Japan Department Stores Association said. "No consideration is given to the fact that the existence of exempted bags will make the preparation process longer," said the official.

The change was delayed from April to July next year to give retailers more time to get ready for the new rules.

But the Japan Franchise Association, which counts convenience stores among its members, welcomed the exemptions. Convenience stores have been demanding the right to offer free shopping bags, citing concerns about safety and hygiene.

"We’re pleased that exemptions have been included in the final result," said a spokesperson for Seven-Eleven Japan, which uses shopping bags containing 30% bioplastic materials that will not be subject to the fees.

The new system will require all retailers to charge for plastic bags regardless of business size. The government will set guidelines for how much consumers should be charged and how the revenue should be used, but the decisions on these issues will be left to individual stores.

But obstacles remain, especially for small businesses. Bioplastic bags cost twice as much as ordinary plastic bags, and it is difficult to determine how much bioplastic individual bags contain, raising concerns about potential fraud.

It is also not easy for small stores to determine the thickness of bags.

Yukari Takamura, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a member of the government’s advisory panel, questioned the wisdom of allowing exemptions to the new fees. This approach could "slow down the pace of reducing plastic consumption," she said.

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