Japan needs to stave off waste crisis

Japan is in a ‘challenging situation’ with regard to its lack of provision for waste disposal, with 78% of municipal waste already being incinerated and an impending lack of landfill capacity, according to a new environmental report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

According to Environmental Performance Reviews: Japan, since the OECD’s last report on the state of the environment in Japan in 1994, public concern over dioxins is making it increasingly difficult to build incineration facilities, and the scarcity of natural resources is making Japan very dependent on imported materials. Because of this, efforts are being made to promote a recycling-based society, and waste generation rates have been stabilised.

However, across the country, only 6% of the total cost of municipal waste services is recovered through waste charges, and the report recommends that the use of waste management charges should be extended and increased. “Also, municipalities are not yet obliged to join the recycling programme under the packaging and containers law, and quantitative targets are lacking,” says the report. “The current ‘pay at disposal’ scheme for electrical appliances may not be very effective.”

Industrial waste also requires further action, says the OECD, with improved monitoring of voluntary schemes, and better policies to prevent the dumping of industrial waste, which has increased in the 1990s. Such policies need to include expanded capacity for treatment and disposal. Soil contamination also still lacks a legal framework and liability is often unclear, says the OECD.

However, overall, the country’s mix of instruments used to implement environmental policy has been highly effective, says the report. Significant progress has been made in tackling non-conventional air pollutants such as dioxins and benzene, and financial support for research and development on new environmental technologies and treatment methods have had a positive effect, says the OECD.

The organisation also advises that user and pollution charges and environmental taxes are not being sufficiently used to internalise environmental costs. Application of the polluter pays and user pays principles are still incomplete, particularly with regard to wastewater services as well as to waste provisions. However, Japan has made encouraging progress with user charges to cover the cost of wastewater services, says the report.

The report also points to problems with biodiversity and nature conservation, with over 20% of mammal, amphibian, fish, reptile and vascular plant species threatened by extinction. Only 3% of protected areas are explicitly devoted to nature conservation, and enforcement and management capacities are weak, particularly in areas facing increasing pressures from visitors and development, says the OECD.

However, Japan does have very comprehensive and regularly updated national inventories of nature and biodiversity, although the national biodiversity strategy lacks quantified targets, and fails to adequately address biodiversity outside protected areas, such as in marine habitats. Economic instruments should be used to provide incentives for compliance with nature conservation regulations and plans, or to provide funds for managing amenities and delivering services beyond legal requirements, says the report.

There needs to be wider use of economic instruments to provide effects such as the generation of economic signals that influence producer and consumer choices, says the OECD.

Last week Japanese media reported that the country is planning to relax its commitment to climate change with a scheme to allow industry to decide how much to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Critics of the Kyoto Protocol say that Japan is effectively abandoning the scheme.

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