Before the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1988, researchers predicted that, based on the counter clockwise currents and the evidence of circulating trash in the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea), a much larger area of garbage would collect in the North Pacific Gyre. And so it has. Meanwhile, while other developed countries have mounted a concerted effort to prevent trash, particularly plastics, from entering the oceans and the rivers that feed them, the problem in the Sea of Japan has spiraled out of control. In the first four months of 2015, more than 15,000 plastic containers have washed onto Japan’s beaches. To make matters more complicated, the bulk of the trash, which includes over 1,000 butane cigarette lighters and includes empty plastic jugs formerly containing hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid, is coming from South Korea and China.
Because of the currents, just about anything that falls in the water off the southern coast of South Korea is likely to end up on a Japanese beach. The problem is illustrated in stark relief on the island of Tsushima, situated in the Korean Strait between the Japanese mainland and the Korean peninsula, where approximately one cubic meter of garbage per person – 35,000 cubic meters – washes up annually. To keep from getting buried, the overwhelmed municipal government spends about five million yen (US $50,000) to ship the trash to Fukuoka for disposal. However the flow of fresh debris from South Korea remains unabated.
As a result, the Dutch-registered nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanup will pilot their revolutionary ocean cleaning system, a water-born garbage collector, in the Korean Strait between the tip of the Korean peninsula and Tsushima beginning next year. According to Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat, the cleanup system will be the longest floating structure in history, spanning over 2000 meters, and will catch plastic pollution before it reaches the shores of Tsushima. Meanwhile Japanese scientists are investigating the possibility of turning the discarded plastic into an energy source, at which point it’s likely that both South Korea and China will start going to great lengths to hold onto their trash.
Unfortunately Tsushima isn’t the only Japanese island getting buried in foreign junk. As a whole, the Japanese government disposes of 100,000 tons of seaside trash annually. Field surveys conducted by the environment ministry between 2010 and 2013 indicate that approximately 50% of the total originated in South Korea. China was responsible for 25%, and the remaining 25% originated in Japan. Another study by the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, indicates that South Korea is responsible for 85% of the refuse that washes ashore on the Japanese coasts.
Ironically, the primary contributors of plastic jugs of hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid are suspected to be the seaweed farmers along the southern tip of the South Korean peninsula. The irony is that seaweed farming has been considered an industry with very mild environmental impact. Edible seaweed, both the popular Nori and Wakame varieties, is grown on seeded ropes that are stretched just below the surface of the water in rows. The seaweed grows on the ropes, hanging down in the water until it is ready for harvesting. Before being re-seeded, the ropes are treated with disinfectant like hydrogen peroxide. If the plastic jug of disinfectant washes into the Sea of Japan, the northerly Kuroshio currents are likely to carry it to a Japanese beach.
Seafoodwatch.org believes that a lack of regulation and enforcement of aquaculture activities from higher levels of government is at least partially to blame. The farming sites, which are generally leased by individuals from local fishing village cooperatives, may lack recycling or trash collection alternatives generally provided by municipal governments. Considering that roughly 90% of Korean seaweed is grown on the country’s southernmost shores, Japan’s western beaches would be the first stop for any seagoing debris. Similarly, trash that enters the Yellow Sea from China’s shores hitches a ride to Japan on the same prevailing currents, which, like the Gulf Stream of the eastern U.S., transports warm water northward.
Oddly enough, it is far better for ocean-going trash, especially plastics, to wash up on a beach than it is for it to get caught up in one of the ocean’s many gyres, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to a 2014 National Geographic study, there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 tons floating around in the world’s oceans today. Treehugger.com claims that 6.4 million tons of plastic are being “dumped into the ocean” every year. Unlike beach trash, which can be removed, recycled or disposed of properly – perhaps even used as fuel – once an empty jug of nitric acid ends up in a gyre it may be there for up to 450 years before it fully decomposes. In the process, invisible plastic particles (sometimes referred to as “nurdles”) turn into toxic sponges, soaking up to a million times their weight in oil, gas, chemical and other poisons. Once the nurdles are in the food chain, the toxins bio-accumulate, resulting in even higher concentrations inside fish. Like mercury, it’s only a matter of time until toxins find their way into our seafood dinners.
That is, if there is any seafood left to eat. According to The Ocean Cleanup organization, at least 1M seabirds and 100K marine mammals die yearly. There are currently 100+ species at-risk including the Hawaiian Monk Seal and Loggerhead Turtle. Cost to remove ocean trash can be up to US $25,000 per ton. A Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year found China to be the world’s largest producer of marine debris, followed by Indonesia. According to their study, the coastal population of China generated 8.82 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste in 2010, about 27.7% of the world total. Of that, between 1.32 million and 3.53 million metric tons ended up as marine debris. In the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, approximately 80% of beach detritus is from China.
Historically, Japan is regarded as having one of the cleanest societies in the world: citizens carefully sort their garbage into burnable, non-burnable and recyclable bins. At sporting events, spectators are expected to pack their trash out with them, sort it, and dispose of it at home. And while some of the trash found on Japanese beaches originates elsewhere in Japan, a concentrated, cooperative effort with neighbors to eliminate the conscious and purposeful dumping of trash into the Sea of Japan will go a long way toward alleviating the problem.
Global organizations like the Ocean Conservancy, The Surfrider Foundation and The Ocean Cleanup, along with national groups like Japan’s Environment Ministry are actively engaged in cleanup operations year round. Meanwhile Tsushima officials have asked Seoul to help clean up some of their mess.
If the sea of Japan and Japan’s shorelines are going to be saved from endless piles of trash then a concerted effort by neighboring countries to recognize and act on the problem is needed as Japan cannot tackle this problem alone.