TOKYO — The hundreds of millions of tons of single-use plastic we generate and toss away every year is linked not only to waste issues, but also to the global climate crisis. That is a main thrust of a recently released report that digs down to the roots of the world’s single-use plastics problem: who is making how much of it, and where do the manufacturers get their money. And while Japan is certainly not the biggest plastics ogre, it is no angel, either.
According to the Plastic Waste Makers Index, put together by the Australian philanthropic Minderoo Foundation and audited by KPMG International Ltd., Japan’s 2019 domestic single-use plastic production stood at some 5.3 million metric tons, with another 1.7 million tons imported. That works out to 37 kilograms of the stuff per person per year, or 18th in the world.
That’s well below the United States, at 53 kilograms of throw-away plastic per person annually, or Australia, at 59 kilograms. But it’s also quite a bit more than fellow G7 nation Italy’s 23 kilograms, and more than twice China’s 18 kilograms. (Singapore comes first, at 76 kilograms per capita.)
To put this in a global context, according to the United Nations, more than 400 million tons of plastic is made every year worldwide, 300 million tons of which becomes waste. “If current consumption patterns and waste management practices do not improve,” a 2018 U.N. paper states, “by 2050 there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and the natural environment.”
In the past several years, much media attention has been put on how much of that waste ends up in the ocean, forming giant trash islands and suffusing the underwater world with microplastics. A 2016 World Economic Forum report estimated that more than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean annually. By 2025, there could be 1 metric ton of plastic in the sea for every 3 tons of fish, and by 2050 the plastic could outweigh the fish (though some of that plastic will, admittedly, be inside the fish).
How big a role does Japan play in this? The 2018 U.N. report notes that, unlike several other countries, Japan has not banned single-use plastics outright, but “thanks to a very effective waste management system and a high degree of social consciousness, the country accounts for relatively limited leakages of single-use plastics in the environment.”
According to the Environment Ministry, while Japan does produce some 9.4 million tons of plastic waste per year (including industrial waste), about a quarter of that is recycled, and another 57% is burned for energy. The remainder, about 18%, is incinerated or put in landfills.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government has set a goal of reducing single-use plastics by 25% by 2030. It is also looking to make reusability and recyclability mandatory for all plastic containers and packaging by 2025, to hit a recycling rate for these items of 40% by 2030, and a “100% effective utilization of used plastics by 2035.” Some steps have already been made, with retailers now banned from giving out free plastic shopping bags unless they are composed of at least 15% biomass. So Japan does not appear to be doing too badly in terms of plastic waste management.
The country is furthermore leading an international push to reduce plastic waste and improve its management, with its Osaka Blue Ocean Initiative launched at the 2019 Osaka G20 Summit to “reduce additional plastic pollution by marine plastic litter to zero by 2050.” This led to the MARINE Initiative to “support empowerment in developing countries to promote waste management, recovery of marine litter, and innovation.”
But most of this is end-user related; what happens to plastics once they’re on the market and in trash cans. The Plastic Waste Makers Index deals with that side of the issue, but it turns most of its attention on plastic makers and their money.
According to the report, a relative handful of companies are responsible for over half the volume of the plastics we throw away, “with 20 polymer producers accounting for an estimated 55% of waste globally — and the top 100 accounting for over 90%.” Leading the production charts is U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobile Corp., at an estimated 5.9 million tons of single-use plastics per year, followed by U.S. chemical firm Dow Inc. at 5.6 million tones, and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec), at 5.3 million tons. The highest-ranked Japanese firm is Sumitomo Chemical Co., in 25th place with 1 million tons.
In short, the firms pumping our plastics are major corporations, with investors reeling in gains and lenders making sure their daily operations are covered financially. In the former category, fully 32% of investments in single-use plastics are held by state-owned entities. The Japanese government has an estimated $400 million sunk into the industry, not a small number but nowhere near No. 1 Saudi Arabia, which has estimated total investments of $31 billion in the single-use plastic business.
Where Japan’s footprint is larger is in financing plastics. According to the index estimates, three of the top 10 banks lending money or underwriting debt for the production of single-use plastics are Japanese: Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. at No. 6 with $2.9 billion, Mizuho Financial Group Inc. at No. 8 with $2.3 billion, and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group close behind at No. 9, with $2.2 billion. First in this category is Britain’s Barclay’s PLC, with $5.4 billion.
That oil companies are responsible for such a large chunk of plastics output, and the largest state investor in them is an oil-producing nation, is no surprise, the report notes. Over 90% of plastics are derived from fossil fuels, according to the WEF, with the industry soaking up “about 6% of global oil consumption, which is equivalent to the oil consumption of the global aviation sector.” And if the current trend of ever-rising demand for single-use plastics holds, the index says, manufacturing the stuff could account for 5-10% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — the same year by which several nations including Japan have pledged to go net carbon neutral.
What the index drives home is the crossover among environmental issues. We can zero in on gas-guzzling SUVs, or the hazards of plastic straws, or electrical grids juiced with coal, oil and natural gas, but none of these is in fact a stand-alone issue. None of these is by itself the key to solving our environmental crisis. Oil becomes throw-away plastic packaging, and investments and loans become both.
To put it another way, decarbonizing our economies is linked to keeping plastics out of our oceans, as well as keeping global temperature rises under the 1.5 and 2-degree Celsius scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The environment is interconnected, and so must be our efforts to tackle the problems we’ve created within it.
(By Robert Sakai-Irvine, The Mainichi Staff Writer)