It’s April on Shiraishi Island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. The nights are still crisp, dipping to 4 degrees Celsius, but the sky is clear and the stars arc over the beach like thousands of glittery sequins on a pop idol’s stage dress. The constellations are so prominent, even a young child can pick out the Big Dipper.
And the days are splendid: sunny with the promise of oncoming summer fun. But if you looks out at the glittering sea, it sparkles ominously. The glints are not a result of the water but of a flotilla of PET bottles headed for our shores, an environmental Armageddon that has been going on for years.
On the beach today, though, are several domed tents. Their occupants include 11 high school students from Kobe, members of the Eco Club at the Canadian Academy. They have volunteered for the fourth year in a row to trudge out here to rid the island and its 456 residents of this PET cemetery.
Most islands in the Inland Sea are exactly like this one, their shores full of garbage that has drifted up and stayed. But where does it come from?
Some islanders blame it on foreign countries, while others insinuate the rivers are responsible (where unscrupulous citizens dump their garbage, allowing it to be carried down into the Inland Sea during big rains when the rivers swell). Interestingly, no one blames themselves.
When we think of ocean pollution we may consider industrial chemical waste, agricultural run-off, radioactive waste or oil spills most prominently. We also hear of plastic bags, micro plastics and plastic PET bottles being problematic for sea life. Yet, making the connection between us as individuals and the plastic brought in on the surf is difficult.
One might think that because he or she is a responsible citizen who throws out or recycles their plastic waste, that it can’t be their plastic bag choking that sea turtle. Or that since they stopped using products containing microbeads, it’s not their product lining the stomachs of all the fish.
Indeed, should we pull a plastic bag out of the salt water to dispose of it properly, we are disgusted by the slimy item, with its liquid drooling down our arm like spittle from a rabid dog. Yet how can you prove you are not responsible for that very bag that has found itself in the water?
Thousands of containers fall off ships into the ocean during storms. Their contents include plastic bags, shampoo products and, most famously, yellow rubber ducks, wash up on the world’s shores. Humans create demand for all these plastics, so just the fact that you exist means that you bear a part of the responsibility.
Every time we buy a bag of chips, a candy bar or a soda from the vending machine, we are creating a demand for these plastics, many of which are produced elsewhere and shipped or trucked (or both) to a location near us.
In addition, as consumers we cannot control how companies dispose of their waste. Why is it that every year hundreds of soft black plant containers end up on our beaches here in the Inland Sea?
So, why is it that the average person doesn’t see themselves in the reflection of the oil slick? Doesn’t recognize their own fingerprints on the floating drink bottle? The tooth brush washed up on the sand?
Theoretically, the Earth should be fine if everyone recycles. The reality, however, is that not only do many people not recycle; they dump their garbage straight into the sea.
“Most of the beaches are just disasters because there are people who ignore the rules. Posters and ads aren’t effective,” says Anri, a 16-year-old Eco Club member who wishes the government would take action and crack down on people who throw garbage in the wrong places.
But even island residents don’t realize the importance of preserving their own environment. Commercial fishermen chuck out spent light bulbs from their vessels when fishing at night, and a major part of the garbage collected from the beach is small pieces of polystyrene from fishing buoys. Hobby fishermen get their fishing pole lines stuck on rocks or debris and they cut them, leaving birds and other marine animals to get tangled and strangled in them. While no harm would be caused if people cleaned up after themselves, the fact is the majority don’t even consider it. Most islanders wouldn’t even bend down to pick up a piece of garbage on the beach in order to dispose of it properly.
Yet, this small group of Eco Club students from another prefecture is working hard cleaning up other people’s mess. The irony is that they have to drive four hours, expending gas, and thus creating more greenhouse gasses to do work that we on the island could and should be doing ourselves.
Alison Lin, the 14-year-old co-leader of the Eco Club’s trip to Shiraishi points out that while beach clean ups are good, they are a reactive rather than proactive activity. Her school and others are “only mopping up other people’s messes.”
Hana Checketts, 15, the other co-leader, says she had never thought much about the environment before joining her school’s Eco Club. While reactive actions are small steps in making a difference and creating awareness, proactive actions are more difficult to initiate.
“I believe that in Japan there is a tendency to fit in and not stand out, making environmental change difficult,” she says.
Alison agrees there is a lack of urgency concerning climate change. She says that her friends hardly ever talk about environmental concerns.
“Choosing a reuseable bag over a plastic one is something to do when you’re in a good mood,” she says, “but not when it might cause a little inconvenience.”
“Producing plastic is unavoidable,” points out Yuki, another Eco Club member. “But, throwing away less trash is more important than picking up trash.”
And this gets back to the fact that each of us produces much more garbage than we need to. Nicole, 17, feels people need a better understanding of the importance of reducing trash, not just recycling.
Japan generates so much domestic garbage that even plastic wrapping bearing other languages more than likely comes from the local international food store than the product’s country of origin.
When I ask the students what they think could be done to help the problem, they share a lot of ideas.
Sophie, 17, says it would be nice if, from an early age, children and possibly parents participated in recycling activities and picking up trash so they’d learn the consequences of wasting and littering and will get in the habit to reduce, reuse and recycle. “Schools and cities should hold activities constantly,” she suggests.
“With government support, people could be compensated for picking up trash,” says Tina, 17.
Indeed, other countries have put a value on trash by asking that deposits be paid for beverages sold in PET bottles and cans, which means they’re more likely to be returned to a recycling center so the purchaser can get their deposit back. Other countries offer a bulk amount per kilogram of all plastic recyclable garbage.
Annabel, 14, suggests that more awareness should be raised on social media.
Not one student mentioned renewable resources, hybrid cars or nuclear energy as answers to polluted seas. Instead, these students are speaking from a grass-roots perspective, elucidating what can be implemented at the most basic level by individuals right now. After all, why should we wait until 2030 for the government to ban plastic bags when we can, as responsible citizens, stop using them now?
Allison feels passionate that, “As a generation, we need to raise awareness and create change for the planet and our future.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if all generations felt this way?
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).