Photo/Illutration A shopper, left, uses her own bag at a convenience store which started to charge for plastic bags in Tokyo on July 1. (Ryo Ikeda)

July 1 marked the death knell for free plastic bags for shoppers at supermarkets, department stores and major convenience stores in Japan as part of a nationwide effort to reduce the effects of plastic waste on the environment.

Numerous outlets of the stores in the Kansai region began charging customers for plastic and paper bags, while some restaurant chains continued to provide them for free, but switched to ones containing biomass materials.

Life Corp. started charging 5 yen (5 U.S. cents) for large plastic bags and 2 yen for small ones on July 1. It now charges for all types of bags, including ones made of paper.

The supermarket experienced few complaints when it stopped providing free bags in Kyoto and some areas in Osaka Prefecture a few years ago and found that doing so led to more shoppers turning up with their own bags.

After July 1, the supermarket said it will post announcements in stores about the new policy of charging for bags and have staff explain the change to customers.

Kintetsu Department Store Co. started charging between 2 yen and 20 yen for plastic and paper bags which it had provided for free on food sales floors, and said it will introduce plastic bags which contain 50 percent plant-based biomass materials.

Kohyo Co., headquartered in Osaka, operates 79 supermarkets, such as Kohyo, in the Kinki region. The company began charging for plastic bags in all stores in March.

About 60 percent of shoppers at the supermarkets had begun using their own bags by February. Now, more than 70 percent bring them. Even before Kohyo started charging for bags, it had given shoppers a 2-yen deduction on their bill who didn’t ask for plastic bags.

A Kohyo public relation official said things have gone smoothly with the change to charging for bags.

Consumers Co-operative Kobe is known as a front-runner in the effort to reduce plastic bags. The Kobe co-operative has been involved in the “my bag movement” since 1995, starting with an option where shoppers could buy bags in the store by leaving 5 yen in a cash box.

In 2007, it started selling plastic bags at check-out cash registers. About 92 percent of its shoppers were bringing their own bags as of the end of May. The co-operative’s initiatives have helped it conserve about 80 million plastic bags every year.

The Kobe-based co-operative on June 1 started to charge for plastic bags which had been provided for free for shoppers who bought sushi or sliced raw fish, and for bags for clothing

Along with supermarkets and department stores, major convenience stores, which had continued to provide free plastic bags, also began charging for them on July 1.

A plastic bag at Seven-Eleven Japan Co. outlets now costs between 3 yen and 5 yen, excluding tax. FamilyMart Co. and Lawson Inc. charge 3 yen, including tax.

Rather than charge customers to go green, some businesses are instead switching to more eco-friendly bags.

Sushi-go-around restaurant chain Kura Sushi Inc., headquartered in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, will continue to provide free take-out bags even after July 1, but will change to bags containing 25 percent biomass materials.

Due to increased demand from customers staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kura Sushi’s take-out sales doubled in April from the same month a year ago, and tripled in May.

One reason the restaurant chain continues to provide free bags is that take-out sushi containers must stay flat when carried or they will topple over and the fact that many customers don’t bring bags that are suitable for carrying their orders home.

“We’d like to avoid slowing our sales by making customers feel more burdened,” said a Kura Sushi representative, explaining the company's decision to keep supplying free bags.

The biomass material bags cost more than conventional plastic bags, but the sushi restaurant official said the company will cover the extra costs by running its restaurants more efficiently.

(This article was written by Daisuke Ikuta and Kengo Kamo.)