Japan Struggles With New Plastic Bag Policy

Retailers link reusable bags to a spike in shoplifting.

grocery shopping with reusable bags in Japan
Shoppers in Japan with reusable bags.

recep-bg / Getty Images

Starting this past July, Japan began charging for single-use plastic bags in stores across the country. The move, intended to curb plastic usage and reduce pollution, has been hailed as a good step in the right direction. Tokyo's three largest convenience stores have seen the use of plastic bags drop by 75% and one major supermarket, Akidai Sekimachi Honten, has seen an 80% reduction.

Despite this impressive adoption rate, not everyone is as happy as you might expect. Store owners who thought they'd save money by not having to provide plastic bags are now saying there's been a spike in shoplifting, since people can more easily hide stolen items in their reusable shopping bags than they would if they relied on a single-use plastic bag to carry it out of the store.

Some stores have even seen customers leave with store-owned shopping baskets in order to avoid paying $0.03 (5 yen) per plastic bag. As one supermarket president is quoted in the Guardian, "We’re not OK with customers taking away baskets as they cost a few hundred yen each. We thought we would be able to reduce costs by charging for plastic bags, but we’ve been facing unexpected expenditures instead."

A detailed description by an Australian security company outlines exactly how reusable bags promote shoplifting:

"How do shoplifters steal easily? Well, they walk into any store, sometimes with their own bags, sometimes bags that [have] another major retailer logo on it, to look like they just came in from another store. They ... fill these bags with stock from the store and push the trolley straight out without going through checkout. They look less suspicious because they have different retailer shopping bags in their trolley, so it looks like they just couldn’t find what they are looking for in the store and then they just walked out. It is not true, as it was just a distraction and they have stolen from the store."

Staff are disinclined to confront shoppers and accuse them of shoplifting when it's so tricky to detect. They have also been urged by some store owners to engage shoppers in friendly conversation in order to "keep an eye on them," a well-intentioned strategy that hardly seems scalable or sustainable. 

In response to the problem, an anti-shoplifting non-profit group in Japan has created a poster outlining reusable bag etiquette (via Kyodo News). It states that people should leave their own bags folded in the bottom of the shopping basket while filling it with purchases, and that bags containing items purchased at other stores should remain closed. 

A spokesperson for the non-profit said, "If everyone abides by the etiquette (advocated in the poster), it will create an environment that makes it difficult for people to use their bags for shoplifting. We ask for shoppers' cooperation."

I'd add that, from a hygiene perspective, it does not make sense for shoppers to put not-yet-purchased items into a personal bag, in case of an issue at the checkout that causes them to return, switch, or reject an item. Here in Canada, shoppers are once again allowed to use reusable bags in grocery stores (post-COVID), but we must pack them ourselves so that staff do not come into contact with them. There's an awareness that personal bags have varying levels of cleanliness that the Japanese etiquette poster might do well to emphasize.

No doubt these are the usual early bumps in the road when striving to change a set way of doing things, and Japan should not desist from its efforts. After the United States, Japan has the highest per-capita rate of plastic waste in the world. It produces 9 million tons of plastic waste annually, of which 2% is plastic bags. Even its famous free-roaming deer from the Nara prefecture, which are designated national treasures, have been dying from ingesting plastic bags. It may take a while for shoppers to adjust, but hopefully not so long that storeowners cease to support the initiative.