No good deed goes uncircumvented.

On 1 July, the Japanese government enacted a ban on the practice of handing out free plastic bags by retail businesses. Instead, shops, convenience stores, and restaurants must charge extra for such a luxury. This is of course an effort to reduce plastic waste and encourage people to embrace the reusable-bag lifestyle instead.

▼ Some chains like Yoshinoya have avoided change by using a more biodegradable material in their bags

The good news is that it seemed to have had an immediate effect. Although some bemoaned the added wait times at the register and limitations on how much people can carry/buy, there certainly has been a significant reduction in customers using plastic bags within the first month alone. It seems that charging 3 to 5 yen (US$0.03 – $0.05) per bag was just too rich for a lot of people’s blood.

At the three biggest convenience store chains, where bags were once given out more rapidly than anywhere else, plastic bag refusal rates have swelled to over three-quarters across the board. This is considerably higher than the 25 percent seen before the law came into effect.

The bad news is that on the household goods site Lohaco, orders for plastic shopping bags spiked last month, amounting to about a 300-percent increase for the same time last year. This would mean that rather than giving up plastic bags cold turkey, some people simply went in search of a better deal than 3 yen per bag.

▼ Does it count if we keep all our plastic bags in a reusable cloth bag?

Image: Pakutaso

The overwhelming reason to continue craving plastic bags is as a way to hold household garbage. Those smaller sized convenience store bags were especially convenient when it came to containing moister and smellier leftover waste products from dinner like vegetables trimmings and the inedible parts of fish.

Meanwhile, the larger bags gotten from supermarkets tended to be a useful size to hold the amount of overall garbage that accumulates in between garbage pickup, which occurs several times a week in Japan, often with different types of garbage getting picked up on different days. With many urban Japanese homes dealing with limited space, frequent bagging has been an important defense at keeping the sights and smells of daily waste at bay.

Without any alternatives, many people were at a loss with what to do with their garbage and weren’t quite ready to part with plastic bags just yet. This might sound petty, but in their defense, this is peak cockroach season and keeping certain kinds of garbage contained is an important line of defense against those big bastards.

▼ You know your government’s out of touch when problems like smelly garbage and roaches never cross their minds

This result has lead many to point the finger at the government for both inconveniencing their lives and failing to save the environment.

“It’s a meaningless policy that doesn’t help to reduce waste.”
“Yup, I’m one of those people. I bought some bags at the 100 yen shop.”
“This is all stupid.”
“Those bags are essential for garbage.”
“I just bought 100 bags. That policy didn’t amount to much.”
“I have no other choice.”
“So the people using eco-bags are also buying plastic bags in bulk…”

It’s certainly not an ideal situation at the moment, but it’s important to remember that we’re still in the knee-jerk reaction stage of all this. I can remember back when Japan raised the price of a pack of cigarettes to 440 yen ($4.12) and people I knew were starting to buy cans of tobacco to roll their own or even smoking piles of dead leaves to try and compensate.

But as time passed everyone gave in to the prevailing trends either by accepting the new price, smoking less, or quitting smoking altogether. Something like this will probably happen with bags too as people find their own ways to adapt, and at least there are some promising signs that were on the right track with it.

If anything, this all should be a wake-up call to any material producers out there that a very real and very huge demand for eco-friendly trash receptacles has suddenly sprung up.

Source: NHK News Web, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
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