Ahead of the semicentennial anniversary of Earth Day, eco-conscious Members and volunteers explain their motivations for cleaning up Japan.
A short drive from the coast of Kumamoto Prefecture, Michel and Alana Bonzi came face-to-face with the survivors of Japan’s most notorious “pollution disease.”
“Of course, there was the official museum [in Minamata City],” recalls Michel, “but when you go a bit further into the mountains, you find the people.”
Minamata byo, as the disease became known, was first identified in 1956 when doctors examined a 5-year-old girl with convulsions who also had difficulty speaking and walking. Doctors then discovered several more patients displaying the same spastic, uncontrollable movements. Some were unable to even sit or stand.
Two years later, infants were born with congenital neurological diseases, a multigenerational affliction that continues to affect Minamata families today.
In 1968, investigators finally named an official cause: untreated methylmercury dumped into coastal rivers and streams by the local Chisso Corporation chemical plant. Shellfish and marine life absorbed the wastewater. As they’d done for centuries, fisherman caught and consumed the tainted food.
“[The survivors] were quite sure exactly where the mercury was coming from and exactly who was the cause,” says Alana. “It took a long time for [others] to come to that conclusion.”
Both Michel, a native of Nice in southern France, and Alana, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, claim a special bond with their own nearby body of water in Fujisawa.
“When you look at the sea, it connects more than it divides,” says Alana. “We are from two different sides of the Atlantic, but here we are in the Pacific.”
Twice a year, the Bonzis take a break from their French language school. They invite their students and neighbors, host corporate groups and welcome anyone willing to spare a few hours to clean the Kanagawa beach they call home.
Founded in 2009, the nonprofit Sego Initiative draws hundreds of participants for the unglamorous task of clearing trash from the Shonan coast. A portion of debris (aluminum beer cans, plastic food containers and cigarette butts) is simply dumped by careless beachgoers.
A far larger amount of garbage comes from inland, transported downstream to the ocean via the nearby Sagami and Sakai rivers and washed up on beaches.
“People have the impression that people just come to the beach and leave things behind,” says Alana. “Almost 80 to 70 percent of all trash, it comes along the rivers and gets to the ocean.”
Among the more exposed Okinawan islands, the problem is even worse.
“Every island has a windward side,” explains Member John Durkin, 60, who island-hops as part of a solo running tour of the subtropical prefecture, “that gets completely inundated with Chinese plastic. It’s just piled up on the shoreline.”
The sparsely populated islands rarely have the resources to clear beaches of the washed-up netting, buoys and ubiquitous plastic bottles.
“What happens is the wave action pushes the plastic into the coral,” says the Club’s former representative governor. “I just don’t know how you get it out.”
In terms of annual per capita plastic waste, Japan’s 106 kilograms outweighs all of Asia combined. Despite a growing preponderance of retailers charging for single-use carrier bags, consumers used nearly 30 billion of them in Japan in 2018.
Perhaps the country’s recycling industry is the answer? Just 23 percent of all plastic collected is mechanically repurposed, the eco-friendliest option. Four percent is chemically reconstituted. The remaining 73 percent is burned.
With many Asian countries now refusing to accept landfill trash from developed countries, including Japan, the likes of Sage Humphrey believe it’s time for collective problem solving.
“When I give my presentation about how the environment is being impacted,” says the 13-year-old Member, “I think people will say, ‘Oh, no, we need to take action right now.’”
At the Club’s inaugural Green Fair on April 19, Sage intends to do his part by recruiting fellow activists to join the Green Youth Council, a group focused on introducing eco-minded initiatives at the Club.
In addition to workshop sessions with urban farming expert Jon Walsh, green DIY crafts and a poster contest on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, the festival—timed with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April—will offer Members plenty of ideas on how to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.
“Right now, we have a crisis,” Sage warns, “and everyone doesn’t really take this problem seriously.”
When Member Ed Rogers volunteered himself and his children for an afternoon clearing trash from the banks of the Arakawa River last year, of course he hoped they’d leave it a little cleaner than they found it.
“Are they now committed eco-warriors and signing up for Greenpeace?” says Rogers, 55. “I don’t think so. But they hopefully understand that these are the sorts of things that you should do [out of] a sense of civic duty.”
The ideal, he adds, is integrating environmentally friendly imperatives into everyday life.
That’s exactly the approach of Member Eri Hayashi and her volunteer group Kutsukake no Kai.
“It’s just a regular hiking group,” Hayashi, 59, says of the 15-member band of trash-collecting trekkers.
Twice a year for the last 20 years, the Kobe native and her compatriots arrive at the foot of a peak outside Tokyo and ascend with tongs and plastic bags at the ready. They collect primarily beer and coffee cans and plastic food containers discarded on trails until their bags are filled to the brim.
A tedious process, but it’s often the only way to keep Japan’s countless hiking trails pristine. In fact, Hayashi’s Kutsukake no Kai differs only in scale from the efforts led by legendary alpinist Ken Noguchi to clear Mount Fuji of the decades of debris that once prevented it from receiving UNESCO World Heritage recognition.
“Keeping Mount Fuji clean is really important, but all of the mountains in Japan should be kept clean,” stresses Hayashi.
For that, Japan would need groups like Hayashi’s in every city, and a sense of civic duty alone may not be enough.
“The thing about ‘plogging’ is that it’s not just picking up rubbish,” says Robin Lewis. “You’re doing squats. You’re stretching. You’re having a good time with people.”
A bilingual portmanteau of “jogging” and the Swedish phrase “plocka upp”, plogging first appeared in Japan two years ago when Lewis, the co-founder of an eco-startup focused on reducing plastic bottle waste, organized a plogging event in Yoyogi Park.
Nearly 30 people raced through circuits of runs and exercises all while grabbing whatever discarded trash they could find strewn throughout the park.
“It’s not really about the amount of rubbish you collect,” Lewis says of fusing fitness with environmental action. “It’s about the mindset that you see extending from these conversations.”
Since then, corporate groups have partnered with Lewis and his Social Innovation Japan initiative, just as they have with the Sego Initiative, to host days of community service. These sponsored events have helped the Bonzis’ beach cleanups grow from modest events between friends and neighbors to half- and full-day affairs with several hundred participants.
For Alana, corporate social responsibility is critical. At the very least, it prevents the brand of willful negligence that led to so much suffering in Minamata. At best, companies can empower employees to embrace projects of environmental significance.
“You need the companies to go, ‘OK guys, you go out and understand some of the grassroots problems,’” she says. “‘And when you come back, we’re going to give you time so you can figure out ways in which [all this plastic] doesn’t reach the beach.’”
Words: Owen Ziegler