Top Japanese Firms Band Together to Clean Up Ocean Plastic Waste
A worker uses a broom to arrange unsorted recyclable materials including plastic in Yokohama, Japan. (Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg)

Top Japanese Firms Band Together to Clean Up Ocean Plastic Waste

A group of top companies in Japan -- where nearly every chocolate, banana or tea bag is individually wrapped -- is trying to find a way to reduce the amount of plastic the nation dumps in the sea.

Japan is the world’s second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita and was one of the two Group of Seven nations that didn’t sign the 2018 charter to significantly reducing single-use plastic by 2040. But pressure from investors and the public to disclose packaging use, set reduction goals and switch to recyclables is prodding Japan Inc. to reform.

The Japan Clean Ocean Material Alliance, or Cloma, founded last year, has set a goal of 100% recycling of plastic containers and packaging by 2050. Its 361 members range from green startups to corporations like Seven & i Holdings, Shiseido Co. and Itochu Corp.

We spoke to Michitaka Sawada, chairman of Cloma and president of consumer goods giant Kao Corp., about the group’s plans to collaborate and develop recycling technologies that can be applied not only in Japan, but also in developing nations. His responses have been translated and condensed for clarity.

Top Japanese Firms Band Together to Clean Up Ocean Plastic Waste

Why Cloma?

When envisaging the alliance, I noticed that individual companies had already worked on their own environmental, social and corporate governance projects, but they still required a platform for collaboration to expand the scale of these projects. We’ve held several seminars for the member companies, which led to the creation of six actual businesses. One of the leading examples is Kaneka Corp. which makes straws that biodegrade in the ocean and are now available with 7-Eleven’s take-away coffee service.

On the need to work with government

Cloma is backed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and we should take the initiative in building a bridge between government and enterprises. If a regulation needs to be eased to advance recycling strategies, Cloma can negotiate with METI, the Environment Ministry or even the Prime Minister on behalf of member companies.

A single company won’t be influential enough to move the country’s policies, but Cloma can. If policy is altered as a result of the talks, companies will be further motivated to be involved in plastic reduction.

On why Japanese businesses need to be greener

Any efforts cannot last without the promise of a return. Companies should run any kind of green project as a business. ESG investment will definitely bring companies positive effects in as little as 1-2 years, given that people are increasingly aware of the importance of ESG.

Japanese consumer choices have been shifting too. Products that harm the environmental are no longer acceptable to them. The age of cost-versus-quality is over. Young shoppers in particular are scrutinizing designs of packaging and containers, to see if they are eco-friendly, how thick the plastic is, or if refill packs are available.

Can Cloma help other nations?

I’m looking for a chance to export recycling technologies to developing countries. From material manufacturers, packaging producers, brand owners, retailers through to recyclers, recycling technologies should be exported together as one package. Exporting sets of recycling skills will bring huge benefits to companies in the chain.

We can form joint ventures in developing countries with several Cloma members to tackle local challenges to reduce marine plastic.

On the rise of plastic waste due to Covid-19

Plastic waste has increased during the coronavirus outbreak. Masks, face shields, protective gear and plastic bags for take-out food and deliveries -- these are all in high demand.

But the increase is a small portion of the 8 million tons of annual plastic waste in Japan. With proper reuse, reduction and recycling efforts we can resolve the rising demand for plastic.

It’s the “reduction” part that is the key. Downsizing packages or using alternative materials can offset or even surpass the increase in waste due to the coronavirus.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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