I have recently read that the European Union wants to greatly reduce the number of plastic grocery bags used in Europe. Right now, the average EU citizen uses some 200 of them per year, that makes more than 500 million bags in total. If even only a small number of those end up in our oceans – which they inevitably will do – this has disastrous consequences. Tiny plastic particles have already made it into our food, and I think that any measure that can be taken to prevent this should be taken.
Looking at the numbers a bit more closely, one finds that the EU states differ greatly: While Ireland and Luxemburg’s citizens use 18 plastic bags per person and year, in Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and a few other states the number is close to 500 bags per person and year. Austria, with 45 bags, lies only a little bit above the final goal of 40 bags per person per years, which should be reached EU-wide in 2025.
Seeing these numbers, however, I cannot help but wonder what it would be here in Japan, or in Asia as a whole. Part of the problem in Japan is that wrapping gifts has been elevated to an art, and the bag from the store – whether plastic or paper – is always presented to the recipient together with the gift. In fact, the bag is used to carry the gift to the recipient, then the present is taken out and the bag neatly folded and placed underneath the gift when it is handed to the recipient – with both hands and a deep bow, of course.
This goes so far that you may receive extra plastic bags when buying multiple pre-packed gifts. For example, I once bought three packs of Yatsuhashi for different friends – and I promptly received three (folded) plastic bags of the store to go with them. Hilarious – or frustrating?
Of course, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. No matter what you buy and where, you will receive plastic bags. In a bakery, your items will be individually placed in small plastic bags and then in a large one at the end. When I recently bought 100 sheets of loose leaf writing paper – already wrapped in plastic – I was offered another plastic bag to take them home in. The other day I bought a few stamps which were also put in a tiny plastic bag, where even in Austria we use paper. And let’s not talk about the fact that even cookies here are wrapped individually – in plastic of course.
Although the supermarket I now frequent for my groceries is not offering free plastic bags any longer (you have to buy them for 5 YEN apiece) they still provide large rolls of bags at the places where you pack your groceries. Although they are without handles and cannot be used to carry things home, people happily pack their already plastic wrapped meat, sushi, or vegetables a second time, probably to prevent leakage on the way home (which never seems to happen to me).
Not every plastic bag is bad of course, they can be very useful. But is it really necessary to use that many for everything – especially if you know that you’ll throw them out the moment you reach your home? There is nothing wrong with putting my baguette into a paper bag, or just tossing my already plastic wrapped onigiri into my backpack without further ado.
Even though I carry at least my little backpack with me at all times; even though I have an additional cloth bag (which in Japan are called eco-bags, by the way) with me when I know that I will go shopping; and even though I am refusing plastic bags left and right, I still end up with so much more than I could possibly ever reuse. And it annoys me greatly, that at this point, there is not much I can do about it…