Japanese media confronts the “2050 problem" – but is it real?

Published on
July 19, 2017

The Ocean Conference, sponsored by the United Nations, and held 5 to 9 June in New York, U.S.A. broadly covered the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” It touched on pollution and eutrophication, ocean acidification and overfishing, often in terms of overly broad goals and ill-defined future commitments. 

But in the Japanese media, the issue of plastic pollution got the most attention.

The nearby Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the worst of several trash vortexes in the world’s oceans, though the term “garbage patch” is misleading, since it does not consist mainly of visible trash floating on the top of the water, but rather small debris and plastic particles suspended below the surface. It’s density of only about four particles per cubic meter makes it mostly unnoticeable to the casual observer. While this is not a large amount in comparison with the water, it is a large concentration in comparison to the zooplankton at the same depth in the water column – in some places the concentration of plastic is seven times as high as that of zooplankton. 

This is a problem because fish feeding on the zooplankton are sure to ingest a large amount of plastic with their meals. The plastic, with organic pollutants that the zooplankton absorbs, thus enters the food chain to eventually be consumed by humans.

What caught the attention of the Japanese news shows was the “2050 Problem,” a prediction that in that year, if the trend is not reversed, the weight of plastic in the world’s oceans will exceed the weight of fish. The amount of plastic entering the oceans has been variously estimated at between five and 13 million metric tons per year.

Much of the plastic is from discarded or lost fishing nets, buoys, and trash discarded from vessels. Other plastic items, such as bottles and bags, enter the ocean after being discarded on beaches or entering via storm drains and via rivers. 

At the conference, delegates from China, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines pledged to work to keep plastics out of the seas. The Maldives announced a phase-out of non-biodegradable plastic, and Austria pledged to reduce the number of plastic bags used per person to 25 a year by 2019.

The commitment by the Asian countries is particularly important because many of these countries have adopted modern consumer economies, with prominently feature plastic containers and wraps, while not having yet developed modern waste collection, treatment and recycling, or sewage and storm runoff systems. Additionally these countries have large populations, with China the world’s largest at 1.3 billion and Indonesia fourth at 257 million people.

A scientific study (Schmidt et al., 2017) estimating the amount of mismanaged plastic waste entering the ocean via rivers found that approximately 75 percent of the total was transported by  just 10 rivers, most of which were in Asia. Those in China were most prominent.

In the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom, efforts against microplastics are mainly being undertaken by private foundations.

The Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, and funded by Wendy Schmidt (wife of Google’s Eric Schmidt), and announced in May, is split into two sections. The Circular Design Challenge seeks packaging ideas to address small-format packaging like wrapper, straws, coffee cup lids, and plastic bottle tops, all of which are rarely recycled. The Circular Materials Challenge seeks innovations in general product design and materials so items are easier to recycle.

So, where does the claim of more plastic in the ocean that fish in 2050 come from anyway? From projections by the same Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

These projections take data on plastic in San Francisco Bay with forecasts up to 2025, and project them to a worldwide scale and 25 years further into the future. For fish numbers, the estimates are based on a study which uses satellite photo-based estimates of plankton, which can be used to (not very accurately) estimate how much fish can be supported. 

In short, the number is as specious as previous claims that there would be no more fish in the ocean in 40 years due to overfishing. 

The alarming claim caught the attention of the Japanese media, which repeated it. Although people in Japan are not generally as aware or concerned as the West about illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing or overfishing in general, they are concerned about health issues and about the possibility of not being able to get fish in the future. 

Sensationalism aside, the problem is a real one, deserving real attention and real counter-measures.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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