Inbound Ambassador

Oysters + Ocean Plastics

Sparked by my recent visit to an oyster farm, here’s some insights into Japan’s Oyster Plastic Problem.

On a freezing cold February morning, I find myself sitting on an oyster boat pulled up next to an oyster float being processed. We are on the calm stretch of sea between Miyajima and the main island area of Hatsukaichi. My hands are numb, but I feel less cold somehow as I watch the crew pulling huge, 4-year old strands of oysters from the sea and cutting the strands at key points to release the oysters onto the boat. It was quite an impressive sight and I find myself admiring the work ethic of the crew plunging their arms into freezing waters at 6am- this is not an easy job!

The longer I watched, the more plastic tubes and discs I saw falling amongst the oysters into the pile. Although sleepy, I also noticed the snow-covered plastic tubes stacked tidily into craters on the docks we walked past when we boarded the boats. As an avid beach and river clean-up volunteer, I am very familiar with these plastic tubes and discs. We have filled countless bags of these same plastic tubes over the years at cleanups and have long suspected that we are only taking a tiny percentage out of the waterways. I now see proof of the claims that each floating oyster bed has 17,000 plastic tubes in use. What I didn’t know is that the oysters grow for 4 years before harvest. So, any new plastics put in with the shells and seeds won’t come out of the sea until 2025.

It’s estimated that at least 100,000 tubes are shaken loose from the floating oyster beds each year due to boat collisions or tidal flows, but I suspect that is a low estimate. I actually broke down and cried once after one of our big beach clean-ups on Ganne Beach in Hiroshima. We had just filled 30 bags to the brim of plastic tubes, discs, and pieces of styrofoam that covered the beach. Most plastics were clearly from the oyster floats, but we were enthusiastic and hardworking and in about 6 hours with our small passionate crew of volunteers, we felt we had accomplished a lot.

It felt great to get so much the plastic off the beach and out of the ocean. But what brought tears to my eyes was going back to the beach when I thought we were done and watching the little kids playing and swimming in the next wave of plastics brought in by the tide. Despite our efforts, within an hour it looked like we hadn’t even been there at all. It’s embarrassing to show so much honest emotion on a video, but it’s how I experienced that day- not jaded or cold to it – my feelings were very raw and I decided it was good to show that side of it.

Of course, the best time to stop putting plastics in the ocean is 10 years ago- but what can we do now?
In the last ten years, I have only seen the problem getting worse and there seems to be no penalties or regulations on the industry from government, and no concerns from the restaurants and consumers about the problem. I found an old clip of my daughter aged 4 yelling at a passing boat- “hey you lost some of your tubes!” as she held up some of the plastic tubes in her hands. It was so cute and we all laughed in the video, but now watching it ten years later, it seems much less endearing.

I have a lot of respect the role that the oyster industry plays in Japan to support the economy and provide employment. Oysters also have a useful cleaning function in terms of cleaning the sea of pollutants. But, there is a blatant disregard for the plastic pollution problem which won’t change until there is regulation in the industry, from the government as well as pressure from consumers.

I asked our oyster-guide from the oyster factory who drove us to the site about the plastic pollution problem and I don’t know why it surprised me that he had an answer ready. Yes, he was familiar with the problem, and yes he knew of the littering on the beaches in the Seto Inland Sea. In fact, he even knew of the problem of the plastic pipes (more common term in Japan for the tubes) appearing on beaches in Hawaii. “Yeah, it’s a problem isn’t it?” he says without any emotion or indication of ownership. He was numb to the problem and jaded as it seemed he’s heard it all before.

To the oyster farmers, the plastic pollution issue seems to be an acceptable consequence of the hard work they do to make a living. And it seems clear that they are unlikely to change their ways of their own volition without pressure from government regulation and consumers. We have seen fishing industry crews sweeping up tubes and burning them on the beaches in Miyajima as we pick them up and put them into bags which will also be taken to waste centers for disposal by burning. But the open piles of plastic tubes on the beach become melted masses of plastic that don’t solve anything despite the outward view that they are “dealing with the problem.” I wonder if this is a feeble attempt at a solution to the problem mandated by the government.

“What did you use before plastics?” I asked. “Bamboo was used, but it was inferior to the material (plastics) we use now”. I have to admit he’s absolutely right, and this is the key hurdle of the plastic pollution issue. Plastic is a great invention as the material seems so cost-efficient, as it is so easy to mass-produce in any desired design, it can be reused, it’s durable, it floats, and it’s light to transport. I talk with KKWang, the wooden bento Kayu Package founder, here about these issues.

It seems perfect, but of course that low-cost and convenience and reuse has a high price for people, planet and yes profits as we start to discover how plastic pollution hurts the made-in-japan brand and becomes a huge financial burden to clean-up. Not only are the tubes clogging up the oceans, beaches and adding to the many giant floating plastic pollution ocean patches, but there is another even more sinister problem that you can’t see as the plastics break down into micro-plastics which are found in all living creatures now. It seems we have very little knowledge yet about what effect micro-plastics is having on our bodies in terms of the toxic chemicals it carries addressed in this 2020 research study. It’s pretty certain none of the effects of micro-plastic ingestion will be good.

As we finish our tour and the others in our group enjoy partaking in freshly harvested oysters on the grill I envision a more profitable future for the industry. Hiroshima oysters could be rebranded entirely as an industry leader if pressured by consumers and the government to stop putting plastics into the ocean daily, changing to bamboo or other natural materials which do not break down into microplastics or pollute the oceans and beaches. But any regulations or targets must be made quickly as the new strands being put onto the beds in 2021 won’t be harvested until 2025.

Tohoku oyster farms have been quick to change to appeal to the upcoming post-covid sustainable travel markets. They are using rope, wood, bamboo and wires and phasing out plastics and styrofoam. There is hope that the industry can change with regional government pressure hand-in-hand with tourism industry pressure from a more ethical consumer demand. Jess Hallams talks of this project and other sustainable travel options in Tohoku here.

I’m happy to hear visitors and residents are so enthusiastic about the wonderful quality of Hiroshima oysters, and any changes in the industry now to stop putting new plastics into the ocean would make it even more popular. A start now to transition to the use of bamboo, wood and natural materials would help insulate the industry from the push-back it will soon face. Complaints have already been made over the years by travel destinations who struggle with creating a high-quality brand as they lose visitors who avoid places overrun by plastic pollution on the beaches and in waterways. I think in the next few years we will see a sudden backlash to the Japanese oyster and fishing industry as soon as human health problems are clearly connected to microplastics in seafood.

A change to natural materials can be a desirable boost to Japan’s brand as a destination as it struggles to compete with destinations worldwide vying for post-covid travelers. It could also help Japan’s fishing and seafood products branding as a whole since we know that customer loyalty is strongly effected by a perception that products are made ethically. The concept and certification of sustainable seafood is an important trend in the foodie, dining and travel industries.

What can we do to help?!
If you are walking along a riverside path or beach, take a bag with you to help pick up a little as you go, taking it out of the environment and going through the waste management system is better than it staying in the oceans for a thousand years. When you find some, share it on Social Media and tag the companies whose products you find to add soft pressure for them to change and improve their company’s branding.

When shopping, choose products with the least plastic packaging and choose reusables whenever possible. If buying drinks, choose glass or metal containers over plastic PET bottles (70% of which are burnt). The best solution is to use the MyMizu app to find clean drinking water sources, or refill at water fountains and restaurants. Reusing your own water bottles around Japan is a healthy way to stay hydrated and reduce waste.

If you see a sustainable seafood brand or product, make sure you comment on how great it is. If you talk with people in the travel industry or government in Japan, please comment on the problem with plastics, especially if they are promoting fish and seafood. This soft pressure and consumer activism can have a very powerful effect if we all make even a small effort.

Related articles on ocean plastic pollution problems in Japan: