Our monthly online newsletter,"L'ESPACE".
L'ESPACE is a diverse French word that means place,area,cosmos,and gap.
- Campaigning for the trending marine waste problem before it fades -
In Close Up this month we introduce the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN). The problem of marine plastic waste has surged to attract much attention in recent years. The large scale environmental impacts of micro-plastics, miniscule particles of degraded plastic which do not biologically decompose and are here to stay, is increasingly being reported by the media. Having worked to resolve the marine waste problem for a long time, JEAN took notice of the marine plastic garbage strewn across the coasts and has been studying the phenomenon since the mid-1990's, even before "micro-plastics" entered the lexicon. We spoke with JEAN's Secretary-General, Ms. Azusa Kojima, about the origins of the organization and its activities.
Please tell us what led to the establishment of JEAN.
JEAN activities were launched in Japan by the first volunteers participating in the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). ICCs, which are the simultaneous beach cleanup and analysis of garbage collected in countries and regions with coasts, were initiated in 1986 by an environmental NGO in the United States. In 1990, when Earth Day, a growing movement whereby citizens reflect and act to find solutions to environmental problems, began to draw public attention in Japan, a founding member of JEAN decided to participate in the ICC. Initially this person thought to invite only family and friends, but because their challenge was reported in a newspaper, many inquiries from far and wide resulted that the first ICCs in Japan were held in 80 locations across the country. The following year in 1991, the Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN) was founded to urge the public to participate in the ICC and to compile results of its studies, and in 2009, hoping to increase its base of activities, the organization became a general incorporated association. The organization has undertaken efforts to resolve the issue of marine garbage for more than 30 years.
Why do ICCs perform beach cleanups and study garbage at the same time?
In the ICCs of Japan, data on collected garbage is divided into 45 classifications. As it is laborious work, we are frequently told we could clean much more of the beach if we dedicated our time to only collecting garbage. However, simply cleaning up the beach will not resolve the problem of marine garbage. No matter how much garbage we collect, new garbage is generated which floats and is scattered across the beaches. For a permanent solution we must eradicate the root cause of garbage generation. To do this it is necessary to first reveal the actual situation, that is, what type of garbage is arriving on our shores and in what quantity. Consequently, the longitudinal data allows us to detect variations in the quantity and quality of garbage. For example, for more than 20 years JEAN has been aware of the anomaly regarding small pieces of plastic accumulating on the coasts and performing studies and activities to inform the public. JEAN noted increasing quantities of plastic so small they are difficult to collect, long before the term micro-plastics entered our vocabulary.
It's said that you have gradually expanded several activities related to resolving marine waste.
While working as Japan's national coordinator of the ICC network, We learned of the serious problems faced by regions overwhelmed with large quantities of waste washed ashore due to ocean currents and monsoons. For example, large quantities of garbage wash up on the beaches of an isolated island experiencing de-population. Not many people are able to clean up the beaches, and even though volunteers were to visit and collect the garbage, the island does not have the facilities to treat it. In this case, if the garbage is transported to the main island, the municipal budget of the isolated island would have to pay the high cost to process it as industrial waste because another municipality could not treat an outsider's waste in their facilities. Hoping to improve the situation, JEAN began to direct its efforts towards marine waste educational initiatives and policy proposals. Through our lobbying, the Law for the Promotion of Marine Litter Disposal was established in 2009 by an act of parliament. The law stipulates that prefectures with coastlines could receive national government subsidies, marking a big step in initiatives to collect marine waste.
What can we as individuals do to reduce the amount of garbage in the ocean?
It is important to realize that each one of us is implicated in this matter. The majority of garbage that washes up on our shores originates in cities due to littering, falling off vehicles en route to waste treatment facilities, and then swept away by rain or wind and which ultimately end up in the ocean. Possibly a candy wrapper falls from the pocket of a person who normally doesn't litter. Though someone may correctly sort their garbage, perhaps pieces fall out of improperly secured bags during collection. The generation of garbage cannot be curbed if as individuals we don't recognize that our garbage can reach the ocean without our being aware of it–marine waste is caused by us all. We also have a problem very particular to Japan, excessive packaging. Rather than courteously overwrapping gifts, each one of us must habituate ourselves to reject using things that are promptly discarded. Many people may feel we are victims of garbage that arrives from Southeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, but I'd like to remind them that the garbage we generate in Japan also reaches Hawaii and the west coast of the United States.
What do you think of initiatives to combat plastic waste in Japan?
Japan lags far behind the rest of the world. The Japanese government announced last June that in 2020 it will prohibit the free distribution of plastic grocery bags. However, more than 60 countries around the world already prohibit or charge for disposable plastics, such as grocery bags. Even in this country there are municipalities and supermarkets that have been charging for plastic grocery bags for more than 10 years, and in some areas more than 90% of shoppers bring their own bags. Moreover, the plastic problem cannot be solved simply by charging for plastic grocery bags. Among the single-use disposable plastics, it is important to examine which plastics we must stop using now and those we can easily live without. I believe that society will not change without the government taking an active role towards reducing disposable plastics in general, rather than targeting specific articles such as plastic straws and grocery bags.
What are the problems experienced with the activities?
Financial problems have been plaguing us for a long time. JEAN has a long history of activities and is member to a committee of the national government. For these reasons, people may have the misunderstanding that we receive public funds as national subsidies, but in reality we have not received anything and cover the cost of our activities with private donations and grants. In addition, the donations upon which we depend do not amount to much because our corporation is not the type which receives tax breaks. We are able to use grants only for a part of current activities, and as such, we must cut personnel and office maintenance costs. Until now we have not often lamented we lacked resources, but as we want to avoid any misunderstandings that we have sufficient funds, we now honestly confess, "We need money! We need money!" (laughing).
Can you tell us if there are any activities you would like to dedicate more efforts to?
On behalf of JEAN, as part of educational activities we offer lectures, workshops, classes and more in various regions, but if possible we'd like to offer more classes and workshops in schools. We cannot visit places without charging as JEAN lacks an activity fund, but if we find a way to reduce the cost to schools we would like to share all that we have learned in 30 years to both the kids who are interested in the ocean garbage problem and to those who are not. In addition, due to the recent interest in ocean waste, we are receiving many consultations and questions, but we fervently wish that the people who have become interested in the issue maintain the awareness that they are part of the problem, rather than simply thinking that helping in a beach cleanup is enough. As for JEAN, we want to offer information and coordination so that people can participate in beach cleanups with an understanding of why ocean plastic waste is trending and the core reason for cleanups and data collection.
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