A Japanese retailer’s plans to halve single-use plastics: The reality and the potential

2021 / 3 / 24 | Author: enw_editor

The plastic pollution problem is drawing increasing attention worldwide, yet the growth in demand for sanitation products and home-delivered food during the coronavirus pandemic could make the situation worse. Against this backdrop, the Japanese retail giant Aeon announced a target to halve its usage of single-use plastics in products by 2030.

Aeon plastic usage policy

To achieve its goal, Aeon plans to switch the containers and packaging used in private-brand (PB) products to paper, bioplastics, and recycled plastics. It will also cut use of sales-related materials such as plastic shopping bags. For a Japanese retailer, this clear commitment to reducing all single-use plastics, not just specific items such as shopping bags and straws, is undoubtably progressive.

But there’s one part that concerns me. At least according to the press coverage, which is short on details, the words “reuse” and “returnable” are not fully mentioned in their specific plans. While shifting to alternative materials such as paper, bioplastics and recycled plastics is important, doing so without properly sourcing and processing them after use could cause problems elsewhere.

As a whole, Japanese companies tend to focus only on shifting materials, when in fact, achieving drastic reductions in single-use plastics requires a fundamental reassessment of the excessiveness of packaging itself, and incorporating reuse as a method of delivering products to customers.

In its report on the single-use plastics issue, Unpacked, Greenpeace UK states that UK supermarkets can halve single-use plastic packaging by 2025 through reduction and reuse alone.

The report identifies 13 categories of products with the highest potential for cuts and proposes ways to make those cuts. For example, supermarkets can cut plastics by as much as 70-90% by selling fruits, vegetables, and other produce without packaging by installing misters to maintain freshness, and by switching to returnable containers for juice and carbonated beverages and cleaning, laundry, and shower products. The report presents a variety of case studies that offer examples — a useful reference for Japanese companies — of reuse-based systems. These include introducing a deposit return scheme, using a LOOP system (which is now being piloted in Japan), installing refilling machines, and selling in bulk.

Also intriguing was the process Greenpeace UK followed in producing its report. It commissioned an NGO to hold workshops with retailers, one of which provided detailed sales data that Greenpeace UK then analyzed. Throwaway plastic is not a problem any one company can solve on its own. It requires the cooperation of suppliers as well as behavioral changes on the part of customers. And national and local governments must create policies and systems to encourage and support them.

Joining forces with an NGO focused on the issue is a trend we should welcome in Japan. As for me, I’m interested in how I can be the bridge that connects them.

Photo credit: free stock photos by RitaE from Pixabay

Takeshi Nozawa (Author), Translation by Stephen Jensen