No ifs, ands, or butts
By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
I recently paid a visit to what might be Japan's largest ashtray. It was a beaut. Actually, there are many such massive, sand-filled receptacles around the world, I was told. Hard to believe, I thought, because the one I saw was large enough to hold several families and was studded with thousands of butts. Funny, you could almost mistake it for a beach.
Let me back up a bit. I was asked to join Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN) to learn how to be a "captain" at the September International Coastal Cleanup. How complicated could that be, I wondered? Just bend down and pick up garbage, right? As we gathered in the local community center to study, I discovered there was plenty to glean.
During an International Coastal Cleanup, all collected waste gets categorized, counted, and recorded. Junk from fishing boats — old nets, lures, and Styrofoam boxes, etc. — needs to be separated from household trash items such as plastic bottles, obento containers, straws, and food wrappers. There are sub-categories for toys, bicycles, used syringes, fireworks, and even (yuck!) tampons. We were encouraged to seek out even the teeniest visible pollution, such as rice-sized resin pellets which collect in the systems of birds and fish, often killing them.
We learned about the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, a massive flotilla of plastic refuse, apparently now the size of a continent. It's nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive to haul out garbage once it's swirling mid-ocean. Therefore, when some of the trash washes up on our shores, it's one of our only opportunities to right what we have wronged in terms of our environment. The other opportunity is a daily one: Avoid plastic whenever possible, because it's the most pervasive and permanent form of pollution in the ocean. It simply never disappears.
Finally, we packed up our notebooks and headed to the beach. At first glance it didn't seem to be polluted, but once our eyes adjusted to our task, we could see plastic and refuse everywhere: medicine bottles from abroad, wires, motor parts, pellets, and even some luckless lady's bathing suit strap! What surprised me, though, was that in a brief, seven-minute training cleanup, we collected several hundred cigarette butts. Those suckers are small, but exceedingly dangerous. Aside from taking more than a decade to disintegrate, once in water, they release a vile cocktail of chemicals. Care for a little cadmium, lead, and arsenic with that salmon?
When I lead kids on a beach cleanup I don't want to terrify them (with the truth), but most children spot the obvious immediately. They will note that cigarette butts and lighters make up the bulk of visible trash on many Japanese beaches. Naturally, they'll ask, "Why do people do this?" and I won't have an answer. It's easy to blame garbage on vague industrial sources or remote dumping, but when presumably educated, local adults can't be bothered to carry home their waste, it's hard to explain to kids, no butts about it.
Is it necessary to hire a beach patrol to issue fines for littering on beaches? One way or the other, financially or literally, that patrol would surely clean up!
Shukan ST: September 25, 2009
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