• Waste management in Japan
  • Circular economy in Japan
  • Waste management in Asia
  • Disaster waste management
*The following is an English translation of an article from the November 2018 issue of the Division’s online magazine (see the original text in Japanese).

Contribution to the Formulation of Japan’s Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics

November 2018 issue
Masahiro OSAKO

Recently, the Japanese media have been reporting, more frequently than before, the topics of marine microplastic debris problems and shops starting to charge for plastic bags. One reason for these is that Japanese government is currently (as of November 2018) discussing formulation of the "Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics" in its Central Environment Council. This national level discussion started when the government formulated the Fourth Fundamental Plan for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society in June 2018. The Plan highlights “thorough circulation of resources throughout the lifecycle of goods and services” as one of its several main focus areas. The Plan includes the formulation of the above-mentioned strategy for plastics as a material level effort to promote measures in this focus area. As I have been involved in this effort as a member of the Council, I would like to update you on the progress.

When considering the direction for plastic resource circulation, we need to understand the following underlying issues.

  1. ① The 3Rs, that is, “reduce” (reduce the generation of waste), “reuse” (use resources repeatedly and cyclically), and “recycle” (use unnecessary recyclables as resources) (see our June 2013 and August 2014 [in Japanese] issues) need to be promoted further for plastic waste in terms of resource and waste management limitations.
  2. ② Plastic waste needs to be properly treated for minimizing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the perspective of a measure against climate change; incineration of fossil-resource-derived plastics generates a greenhouse gas, CO2.
  3. ③ Microplastic pollution has been increasing rapidly on a global scale; it has become an urgent issue to deal with.
  4. ④ For international contribution, Japan needs to support emerging markets and developing countries in improving their weak waste management systems; substantive amount of plastic waste is thought to be discharged from these countries into the sea.
  5. ⑤ An outlet for waste plastics needs to be created urgently by treating them properly as they have been accumulating in Japan due to the recent import ban by China and other Asian countries.
  6. ⑥ In resolving the above-mentioned issues, a direction needs to be established for plastic resource circulation as a common value in our society; it needs to be formed into a sustainable system of the circular economy.

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment (MoEJ) presented the "Resource Circulation Strategy for Plastics (Draft)" (referred to as the "Draft Strategy") at a meeting of the Council on October 19, 2018 to provide a direction for resolving these issues. The following sections introduce some points that I found important in the draft document.

1) Basic principle of “3R + Renewable (sustainable resource management)”

First, the Draft Strategy presents its basic principle of the "3Rs + Renewable (sustainable resource management),” which I believe has the following meaning. While observing the principle of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” it also highlights the importance of reducing environmental burden through reducing carbon emissions with a reasonable shift to carbon-neutral biomass plastics (see our November 17, 2008 and March 2018 issues [in Japanese]) and through measures for preventing its discharge into the sea and resolving the microplastic problems.

2) Four strategic pillars

Next, the Draft Strategy demonstrates the following four strategic pillars to describe the direction for Japan’s future efforts: (1) establishment of plastic resource circulation systems, (2) prevention of marine plastic litter, (3) international cooperation, and (4) development of basic infrastructure. Until now, discussions on plastic waste have not sufficiently focused on the above-mentioned underlying issues and concrete measures for resolving them. It also appears that these discussions are not necessarily based on objective facts and analyses. More concretely, they have not fully reviewed scientific evidence regarding the following problems: to what extent plastic waste is responsible for the problems such as resource depletion and climate change; how microplastics are polluting the marine environment; and what countermeasures would be most effective. For example, the general view is that microplastics contribute little to the final exposure of humans and other organisms in our ecosystem to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)1 though it is also known that microplastics can be a medium for absorbing and transporting such substances. As another example, we can mention that Japan has made significant progress in taking measures for energy recovery and advanced dioxin control in the field of waste incineration. If we consider this progress, the claim that incineration of plastic waste contributes to global warming and dioxin contamination seems biased.

In the above context, the Draft Strategy’s clear distinction between the two pillars, (1) “establishment of plastic resource circulation systems” and (2) “prevention of marine plastic litter,” appears reasonable in a sense that the issues are explained clearly to define the direction for the efforts. The pillar (1) shows the direction for full implementation of 3Rs and promotion of bioplastics (i.e., biomass plastics and biodegradable plastics) for preserving resources and reducing carbon emissions. The pillar (2) shows measures for effectively preventing plastic inputs into the sea: elimination of plastic littering and illegal dumping, prevention of plastic waste outflow, and collection of marine plastic litter.

The pillar (3) presents “international cooperation,” that is, Japan's support for developing countries. These countries lack proper systems for plastic waste management, and this situation has been placing a heavy burden on the environment in real terms. Further, the pillar (4) presents a cross-cutting theme “infrastructure development” to support the pillars (1) to (3) for strengthening social systems, promotion of relevant industries, technology development, collaborative partnerships, and information infrastructure. The last pillar makes the Draft Strategy complete by presenting the direction for these efforts.

3) Points for further discussion

The items that the Draft Strategy presents as the direction for Japan’s future efforts vary from rather concrete to abstract ones. In this last section, I would like to list some items that have raised my personal interest and that, I think, require further discussion.

The first item is introduction of a government-led initiative of charging for plastic shopping bags (e.g., a ban on providing them free of charge) to “reduce” the use of plastics to the minimum level. This initiative has already been introduced on a business (e.g., major supermarket chains) or regional basis, but the Draft Strategy promotes it further with the aim of making it as a symbol for bringing changes into consumers’ lifestyles, more than generating concrete effects of reducing the use of plastics. The key to success is how far the businesses, including small and medium-sized enterprises, could understand this philosophy, and whether it will be implemented strongly as a national campaign.

The next item is promotion of the use of bioplastics. In other countries outside Japan, topics such as introduction of a ban by the government on the use of fossil-resource-derived plastic straws and major coffeehouse chains’ move of switching from plastic to paper or biomass plastic straws have recently been taken up by the media. Still, we cannot deny that plastics have various excellent features as a material, and that they support our daily lives. Moreover, it is not so easy to convert all fossil-resource-derived plastics to biomass-based ones or paper products. The purpose of promoting the use of biomass plastics is to contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions. Their incineration is deemed carbon-neutral. Therefore, they can be applied to containers and packages that are expected to become too dirty to be recycled and are expected to be burned for disposal. They can also be applied in the areas where the features of fossil-resource-derived plastics can be sufficiently secured by biomass plastics. In this way, effective applications of biomass plastics, including how to secure the original features of plastics, should be considered in a balanced manner.

The last item is the question of how to balance between material recycling of plastics and energy recovery from burning them. The Plastics Strategy of the European Union’s circular economy package sets the energy recovery from plastics to the lowest priority (i.e., lowest “waste hierarchy” level) among various recycling methods. In Japan, energy recovery is positioned at a similar hierarchy level in the Basic Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society. In reality, however, Japan’s more than half of the entire plastic recycling is achieved through energy recovery, and only about a quarter through material recycling. Moreover, most of the waste plastics that fall into the category of material recycling are those exported to China and other Asian countries to be recycled there. Due to the recent import ban by these countries, exporting waste plastics from Japan is expected to become more difficult. However, it is also clear that Japan’s material recycling businesses and domestic demand for recycled materials cannot be increased overnight. In order to change the balance between material recycling and energy recovery, it will be necessary for Japan to develop a roadmap along with a time axis while sharing the long-term direction based on the waste hierarchy.


  1. Koelmans AA et al. (2016) Microplastic as a vector for chemicals in the aquatic environment: critical review and model-supported reinterpretation of empirical studies. Environ.Sci.Technol., 50, 3315-3326