Today, let’s look at a problem that we can all see with our eyes, one that impacts us intimately and that we may even feel overwhelmed or disempowered by; I’m talking about our collective problem of ocean trash. In this article, I want to review our struggles with our waste and ocean trash and consider what is being done here in Japan and the world to clean up the industrial and consumer waste that finds its way into the oceans.
We’ll take a look at the history of global efforts to keep the oceans clean and consider what kinds of trash are in the oceans and how it affects the overall health of people, wildlife, and local economies. We’ll look at various metrics from the Ocean Health Index and how they relate to ocean trash. We’ll see how Japan measures up compared to global metrics used to measure the progress that leads to clean oceans. Finally, we’ll consider Japan’s approach in the Pacific, its areas of leadership, and where its policies attract criticism.
In the end, let’s consider some projects and resources that you can get involved with to either reduce the negative impacts we have on the ocean or ways you can make the situation better. Let’s get into it.
Healthy ocean treaties have been around for a while. In 1972, the first of these Agreements, the London Convention, was established. At that time, the global population was under 4 billion people. Today, we have increased our numbers to almost 8 billion.
Given the impossibility of foreseeing the effects of such rampant growth, it is necessary from time to time for countries to come together, reassess and redouble efforts to respond to existing and new problems that affect the health of the oceans, and our sustainability as a species. Such updates and new additions include the London Protocol in 2006, but significantly, this initiative prohibited industrial dumping primarily and did nothing to address plastics.
International focus on plastics in the oceans began amping up in 2013, with Ocean Cleanup, a project founded by Boyan Slat, a young man from the Netherlands intent on making a real impact on ocean cleanup. Other projects like International Coastal Cleanup Day, established under Ronald Reagan, are much older. The establishment of that day, which is the third Saturday of September every year, has slowly gained momentum and garners wide-ranging participation from civic organizations and NGOs today.
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But the most significant way we have a collective awareness of the plastic problem is by seeing it ourselves when we go to the beach and explore the rivers that feed out into the oceans. We know the impact of dying species, starfish that encrust the rocks but no longer exist. We feel the debris brush against our bodies when we go to splash in the waves, and all of this is a pain and loss we all carry, part guilt, part grief, part anger. It certainly gives us a reason to worry, if not for ourselves, then for the futures of our children and their children.
Let’s start by establishing a sense of scale and work down from there. How much plastic is in the ocean as of 2021? According to one article, the estimate is 840 billion pounds of it, or 44,000,000,000 貫. According to National Geographic, the US is the #1 contributor, pitching in 42 million metric tons. Japan is not out of the woods, though, as it holds the #10 spot on this list, at 4.2 million metric tons. Thanks to its burning of plastic waste (more on that later), Japan looks like it’s performing well here if you consider that it’s still the 3rd largest economy in the world.
Types of ocean trash that affect us all are diverse, but PET bottles and plastic sheeting, including other single-use plastics, dominate the mix. The findings of one report by the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology tell us that this type of marine plastic makes up most of the ocean trash in Japan. Consumer plastics like these are the kind that readily disintegrates into microplastics and enters our food chain and our bodies, causing health problems and mutations with unknown inter-generational effects. Other types of marine debris include fishing gear, including plastic nets and styrofoam floats.
In Asia, a conglomerate of ocean trash contributors, one 2018 Forbes article claims, is dwarfing the impact of the US, though. “China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are dumping more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined.”
Before we get too proud of ourselves here in Japan, let’s consider the amount of trash, including single-use plastics, Japan exported to these very same countries. Sometimes, a country can avoid the headlines better than prevent the problem. The world economic forum helps to keep this in perspective in this article.
To start to gain a better understanding of the diverse ways Ocean Trash impacts the oceans, sea life, and even life on land, the Ocean Health Index is an excellent reference.
I want to take a look at global scores vs. Japanese scores in these categories and consider each point. Of course, critics can dispute the scoring methodology, but rather than being a way to commend or condemn countries, it is more beneficial to learn what conditions in Japan led to disproportionate scoring.
Food provision is our management of the food productivity of the oceans; how we source ocean food, either through fishing in the wild or ocean farming. Healthier and cleaner oceans can produce more and better quality food, whether seaweed or maguro—the Global score=50. Japan scored 45.
Note: Why is this scoring complicated to verify? The reporting doesn’t go as deep for individual countries on the Ocean Health Index website, but the lower score is not due to ocean trash or pollution but overfishing. Japan eats a lot of fish, undoubtedly straining the supply.
Artisanal fishing refers to local fishing instead of large commercial fishing operations—global score=74. Japan scored 90. Japan has done well, in my opinion, to support local farmers and small-scale commercial fishing operations to continue farming on the lands and with the ships they have available to them. I don’t know if JA Bank serves anglers, but I am guessing a similar resource for small fishers leads to this successful metric.
Sustainable harvesting of small aquarium fish, starfish, etc., falls into this category, and countries are scored according to their degree of sustainability. Global score=75. Japan scored 87.
These ecosystems support specific habitats, including mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass beds. Japan scores low here, and anyone who has visited Japan’s coasts can probably understand why. Due to development, only a small percentage of Japan’s natural coastline and almost none of its tidal flats remain today, including tsunami-shielding protective seawalls.
Japan never had many mangroves in the first place, and the majority of seagrass beds remaining are around the northern island of Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku on the main island of Honshu. Read more here—global score=78. Japan scored 69.
Similar to the causes leading to lower scores in the previous category of carbon storage, coastal protection scores in Japan are lower than the global average. Due to Japan’s dense urban vulnerability to natural sea disasters, namely, tsunamis, their solution was to industrialize the land/sea borders.
Being a major world economy, Japan has the means to entrust its coasts to countless kilometers of concrete. Japan puts its human population first by artificially engineering shorelines to control adverse outcomes, whether they come from natural disasters, erosion, etc. Though this provides protection, security comes at the cost of destroying wild coastlines and habitats. The good news, if any, is that Japan finished the majority of these construction projects years ago. The oceans will continue to encrust the concrete walls with ever more ocean life in the future—global score=82. Japan scored 72.
This metric measures the cultural preservation of the coastlines and the conservation of culturally significant, traditional species. Unsurprisingly, Japan exceeds the global averages in this category. Shrines and temples abound throughout Japan, and sacred grounds surround these places. People, including policymakers, protect them. Local municipalities could build whole cities around them, but the culturally valuable sites and access are maintained.
Similarly, people take great joy in the local species and usually enjoy cultivating conditions that lead to their preservation. In the years after 3/11, it didn’t look great, with debris and trash in the waters, but it seems we are recovering from the worst of it. Ocean trash is far less than in 2017, and tidal pools are once again teeming with life—global score=61. Japan scored 79.
The good news is that globally, the clean waters score has improved by about 1 point each year since 2012. If these scores are to be trusted, this is cause for a grand celebration, and I hope that we can continue to do better in the future. This particular metric is a London Protocol type of criteria, really looking at industrial liquid pollutions, human sewage, and the like, without a specific category for single-use plastics. The plastics industry no doubt has a ferocious legal team—global score=70. Japan scored 67.
Not really a contest, but Japan beat the world’s average by a point on this one. The curious thing about Japan is that even though the coastline is so industrialized, the tendency is to divide the oceans from the land, not to make encroachments into the sea. The sea is not a wild west of lawlessness. Except for whale fishers and other bad apples out there poaching illegal fish, for the most part, the ocean is respected by people in Japan, and people love to contemplate the richness of its depths. Global score=80. Japan scored 81.
Though Japan fell short in many ways, as highlighted in part in this post by MyMizu’s Robyn Lewis, Japan’s most significant advantage in reducing marine plastic pollution, though controversial, is its plastic recycling, energy recycling, and incineration programs. Since Japan is an island country, waste disposal via landfills is not practical. Some islands, even in Tokyo, are built on trash, like Odaiba, just across the Rainbow Bridge. Building islands is extraordinarily costly and more a concept project than any real solution. Since trash export is less and less acceptable, what can Japan do with all the precious premium fruit adornments made of single-use plastic?
Oddly, it comes as a surprise to learn that Japan burns the majority of its waste, and while it does lead to a significant reduction of ocean trash, it isn’t easy to find data on the air quality impacts of this burning which is essential if we want to consider the cost/benefit of the practice. The practice of trash incineration once contributed to air pollution by adding cancer-causing dioxins and CO2 to the atmosphere. The advanced incineration methods used today have drastically reduced these adverse outcomes.
Japan continues its focus on the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” model in theory but has failed to include its core competency of incineration in the vision published by the Ministry of the Environment. The guiding model is still The Basic Act for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society, published in 2000.
Recent criticisms of Japan on the subject were joined with disbelief as Japan’s abstention in signing the Ocean Plastics Charter made world headlines. The accord called on the G7 to help areas of the world with high concentrations of marine litter to develop infrastructure to support effective waste management.
Plastic trash production and ocean trash research are widely documented and available online, and each year, countries seeking influence publish new reports. This dutiful publishing of studies helps make Japan’s efforts and failures to combat the issues more transparent.
Even with Japan’s addiction to single-use plastics, the country does fairly well historically in being frugal and reducing overall wasted generally. Mottainai (“what a waste!”) is a comfortable concept here. In an excellent article over at ZenBird, Edo period sustainability practices are highlighted, including the rise of small recycling and repair businesses at that time. Even human excrement was bought and sold to farmers for agriculture. The mottainai spirit is deeply embedded in Japan and should not be discounted as we hold Japan accountable for doing more.
Japan has been slow to realize its predicament concerning single-use plastic. The fact is that domestic production and consumption are to blame for most trash washing up on Japanese shorelines. Leadership is taking the proper steps to popularise SDGs, support and promote social impact businesses and gambare to improve.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but what seems like the marketing of SDGs today will incrementally turn into real-world reforms as long as governments and industries continue to support the initiatives.
And for as much plastic as is used, trash reduction is already a way of life in the land of the rising sun; everyday citizens take responsibility for their part. That’s why you don’t see mounds of careless trash on city streets, except for late-night Shibuya and similar locations. People need to carry their trash with them. The lack of public trashcans alone leads to a significant reduction on the consumer level.
The government has set a goal to see a 25% reduction in plastic waste by 2030. If achieved and adjusted for population decline, we will continue to witness Japan and the rest of the world become healthier.
In the end, policymakers in Japan and globally should consider the impact of their policies at least three generations ahead, especially when it comes to persistent problems like marine plastic pollution.
If you aren’t a policymaker, you still have the agency to produce an impact of your own. You can use reusable totes and containers, create businesses built on sustainable principles, shop at those businesses, and participate in civic activities to clean the beaches. Together, our efforts can potentially change Japan’s reputation as a single-use plastic-obsessed country to one of the world’s bright lights of leadership.