Photo/IllutrationPlastic bottles and other waste collected by a cleanup boat in Tokyo Bay (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The Environment Ministry has worked out a draft proposal to reduce plastic waste focused on recycling and cutting usage of single-use plastic products.

The strategy calls for a 25-percent reduction in the consumption of disposable plastic products, such as supermarket checkout bags and straws, by 2030 while ensuring that 60 percent of plastic packaging will be reused or recycled.

This is the first time the government has set such numerical targets to deal with the pollution scourge. The targets should be achieved through a well-planned, energetic policy drive.

When plastic trash flows into the ocean, waves and ultraviolet rays cause the waste to degrade into microplastic pieces of 5 millimeters or less in length. Microplastics can absorb pollutants before being ingested by fish and other marine life, posing a potential health threat to humans and other animals through the food chain.

A trend has been spreading to reduce plastic use and stem the increasingly serious problem of microplastic pollution.

The European Commission has proposed banning single-use plastic products, such as straws and cups. A growing number of countries are embarking on their own efforts to tackle the problem.

In the private sector, global restaurant chains have decided to eliminate plastic straws from their stores.

In Japan, efforts have been made to prevent plastic waste from entering the sea, including sorted collection and recycling of plastic trash.

But Japan remains a leading plastic consumer, with the second-largest per-capita consumption of single-use plastic products, trailing only the United States.

Accordingly, Japan has the responsibility to lead international efforts to reduce plastic waste.

One key acid test is how it can cut back on the use of plastic checkout bags.

An average Japanese consumer uses as many as 300 to 400 such bags annually.

The containers and packaging recycling law urges retailers to charge for checkout bags and provide customers with reusable bags. But it is merely a call for voluntary efforts.

The Environment Ministry’s proposal represents a step forward because it calls for legally requiring retailers to introduce charges on checkout bags.

But there are limits to the effectiveness of such measures. While many supermarkets in Japan now charge for checkout bags, only half of their customers actually forgo the use of them. This ratio has leveled off.

The government needs to devise more effective measures by learning from countries that have already banned checkout bags.

The ministry’s proposal also includes steps and goals to promote the use of renewable materials to replace disposable plastic products, such as plant-based biomass plastics.

This approach may face tough challenges including lower usability and higher costs.

But technological breakthroughs to overcome these challenges will likely create new business opportunities.

Consumers should also do their part. Unless we reform our heavily plastic-dependent lifestyles, there can be no fundamental solution to the problem.

Japanese consumers should not forget that the world is watching how this leading plastic-using country will address the environmental challenge.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 20