Japan’s consumers have embraced a campaign to address their addiction to plastic bags, but new measures to combat marine pollution have created an unforeseen problem: a rise in shoplifting.
All of Japan’s stores were required to introduce a fee for plastic shopping bags in July with the aim of encouraging shoppers to use their own, reusable bags rather than pay for carrier bags.
While supermarket and convenience store chains reported a dramatic drop in plastic bag use as consumers quickly changed their shopping habits, a significant proportion said some were exploiting the campaign against single-use plastics to shoplift.
Despite being encouraged to use regular in-store baskets, some shoppers place items in their own bags, making it harder for staff to spot stolen goods, according to media reports.
At Akidai Sekimachi Honten, a supermarket in Tokyo, about 80% of customers started bringing their own bags when the plastic bag charge was introduced, according to Jiji Press. The country’s three largest convenience store operators reported a similarly impressive trend, saying 75% of their customers had shunned plastic bags in July, when the charge was introduced.
But a rise in shoplifting has forced the store to tighten security, even including measures to combat the theft of baskets some light-fingered customers use to carry their shopping home rather than pay for a plastic bag.
“We’re not OK with customers taking away baskets as they cost a few hundred yen each,” Hiromichi Akiba, the supermarket chain’s president told Jiji. “We thought we would be able to reduce costs by charging for plastic bags, but we’ve been facing unexpected expenditures instead.”
Shop assistants say they are reluctant to confront people they suspect of placing items into a reusable bag with the intention of leaving without paying. “It’s difficult to judge whether they are stealing or not,” one Tokyo supermarket employee said.
In response, a nonprofit group has produced posters advising customers on “shopping etiquette,” such as keeping their reusable bags folded until they have passed through the checkout.
One expert on shoplifting has suggested that employees go out of their way to chat to shoppers “to keep an eye on them”.
Despite spawning a rise in minor crime, campaigners say the plastic bag charge was long overdue in Japan, the world’s second-biggest producer of plastic waste per capita after the US, with consumers getting though an estimated 30 billion plastic bags a year.