War on Plastics: Can Japan Help U.N. Combat Marine Plastic Litter Worldwide?

BANGKOK, Thailand—Japan is betting US$1.1 million (123 million Yen) it could find a way to keep you from finding plastic litter your favorite seafood platter. The Japanese government, on March 4, teamed up with the United Nations to tackle marine plastic litter on an international level. The scale of Japan’s efforts, though, transcends the consumption of plastic litter by marine life. Both Japan and the U.N. have greater aspirations: attack marine plastic litter at the source and, over time, eliminate plastic pollution altogether.

            Noble as the fight might be, the Japan-U.N. alliance in the War on Plastics is certainly met with healthy skepticism. A statement issued by the U.N.’s Environment Programme bureau on its alliance with the Japanese government acknowledged the presence of such skepticism, saying while intentions are good-hearted there is little to know information available on effective strategies to end marine plastic pollution.

            “In recent years, global attention on marine litter and plastic pollution has surged. However, scientific knowledge on marine plastic litter and effective countermeasures remains insufficient,” U.N. Environment’s staff said in a released statement on its partnership with Japan to tackle plastic pollution in our waters. 

What do we know?

            Discovering effective countermeasures will be time consuming, to say the least – and the issue of marine plastic litter could potentially grow worse as solutions are being developed. How fluid is the situation? Will solutions or countermeasures need to be amended or completely revamped if/when the expanse of marine plastic litter, particularly in the areas Japan and the U.N. initially hope to tackle, grows larger?

            Time will obviously tell how the Japan-U.N. partnership develops, but here’s what we know so far:

-       Japan and the U.N. will develop a simulation model to study and address “plastic leakage” in two major rivers: Ganges in India and Mekong in Southeast Asia

-       Japan is spending 123 million yen (US$1.1 million) on the initiative, which is called “Promotion of countermeasures against marine plastic litter in Southeast Asia and India

-       Local and provincial governments in Agra, Mumbai and other cities along the Ganges River will receive support to stop plastic pollution.

            “The scale of plastic pollution is a major problem affecting our oceans and our planet. With this initiative, we’re taking important steps to tackle the problem at its source rather than downstream,” Dechen Tsering, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme in Asia and the Pacific, said in a released statement. 

Photo credits: NOAA Marine Debris

Photo credits: NOAA Marine Debris

More plastics than fish

            There are billions of pounds of plastic found in “swirling convergences” of the world’s ocean surfaces, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

            “At current rates plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050,” the Center for Biological Diversity stated on its website.

            Plastics have multiple avenues to reach our lakes, oceans, rivers, seas and other waterways, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. Those avenues include ineffective/improper waste management, intentional/accidental dumping, littering and storm water runoff.

            A common message attached to plastic marine litter: plastics aren’t biodegradable but instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually reaching the microplastics stage (plastics measuring less than 5 millimeters long).

 International collaboration

            An op-ed published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America stated as much as 12.7 million metric tons of plastic enters our oceans annually. Yet regulating plastic pollution is elusive since contaminated waters often exist beyond the jurisdictional reach of any country.

            International treaties governing marine plastic litter, just the same, have been absent.

            There are a few collaborative efforts to address plastics in our oceans, of course. NOAA and U.N. Environment Programme established the Honolulu Strategy in 2011 to tackle plastic pollution. The U.N. Environment Programme also created the Clean Seas campaign in 2017, where business leaders, individuals and governments were asked to commit – voluntarily – to implement personalized action plans to reduce plastic pollution.

            There have even been localized efforts to keep plastics out of our waters, including bans on microbeads and plastic bags – but such efforts, which have been piecemeal in nature, have fell short, according to authors of the published op-ed, “Why we need an international agreement on marine plastic pollution.”

            “Positive and measurable progress occurs at these local and national scales. For example, a ban on microbeads in the United States will prevent billions of plastic beads from entering watersheds daily. Still, the pace of this piecemeal progress is not commensurate with the pace of plastic emissions,” the op-ed, authored by Dr. Stephanie Borrelle, a plastic pollution researcher, and others, wrote.

            “The ability to prevent and mitigate plastic pollution locally and nationally varies by nation and region because of resource availability for waste management,” the Borrelle (et al.) op-ed continued.

            International collaboration is ultimately needed to address marine plastic litter.

            “No single solution will stop marine plastic pollution. International collaboration is necessary to reduce the demand for single-use plastic products, shift to a sustainable plastics economy, and improve waste management infrastructure that promotes zero-waste,” the op-ed stated. “To do this, the international community must commit to specific, measurable, time-bound targets to reduce plastic emissions into our oceans.”

            Mekong, the 12th longest river in the world, touches four Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam). The Ganges, meanwhile, runs East-West through several northern and eastern Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh (home to Agra) and West Bengal (home to Kolkata).