Korea's shores have more plastic than most, much goes to ocean
Every year, around 200,000 tons of plastic waste make its way into the oceans from the shores of Korea.
The number comes from a report by the Korea Maritime Institute last year, which found that as much as 990,000 tons of trash are leaked into the ocean from Korea every year. Of that, around 20 percent was estimated to be plastic.
That’s enough plastic to be hauled off by 13,000 dump trucks.
To find out more about the situation of plastic waste in Korea, the JoongAng Ilbo recently met with a team of researchers at Pukyong National University who have been tracing the movement of plastic waste across the streams and waters of the country.
“Heungnam Beach, east of Geoje Island, is one of the top plastic waste hot spots on the southern coast of Korea,” said Yoon Hong-ju, professor of spatial information engineering at the university.
Yoon and his team have been following the movement of plastic waste across the nation and along the shorelines by attaching GPS-tracking devices to some of the pieces of plastic over the past 15 years.
According to his team, a lot of the plastic discarded in the Han River tend to move into the Yellow Sea, and a lot of the discarded plastic in Nakdong River flow into the East China Sea. The currents can then move the marine debris thousands of miles across the borderless big blue.
“During the rainy season, plastic waste can fall into the Nakdong River, move through the estuary, and float toward Jeju Island or the East Sea,” Yoon said. “Some can even end up at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean.”
The JoongAng Ilbo joined Yoon in attaching a GPS-tracking device to a plastic bottle on June 1 and leaving it afloat in the waters south of Gadeok Island, south of Busan. In three days, the bottle had floated towards Geoje Island, located farther west of Gadeok Island, and ended up on the western shore of Gadeok by June 4.
In another experiment, the JoongAng Ilbo with Yoon attached a GPS-tracking device to a plastic bottle on June 1 and discarded it at the southern end of Nakdong Stream, near the tip of Busan. By June 21, the bottle had traveled north and into the waters east of North Korea, then floated south again to be found near the Dokdo islets in the East Sea, traveling some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) total.
As seen through the experiments, a lot of the plastic, once in water, often end up back on the shorelines.
Last year, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries collected some 138,000 tons of marine debris by picking up the trash along the shorelines — around 45 percent more than was collected in 2018. Of the debris collected, 83 percent were plastic.
By international standards, Korea’s shores are some of the most polluted in terms of plastic waste.
According to a study on microplastic pollution of river beds by R. Hurley and others published in Nature Geoscience in 2018, the level of microplastics, or small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters long, found in the western coastal areas of Incheon and Gyeonggi ranked second in the world. The level of microplastics found in the southern tip of Nakdong River was third highest in the world.
To prevent the flow of plastic into the oceans, the government installed filtering devices in some streams, such as K-Water’s filtering facility in Incheon, located where the Gulpo Stream meets with the Gyeongin Ara Waterway.
When the JoongAng Ilbo visited the site on June 1, some 10 workers on site were gathering the trash that was caught in the filtering device suspended in the stream. Among the trash being pulled out of the water were plastic bottles, cans, a hula-hoop and pieces of Styrofoam.
“We empty the filtering device once every 10 days, or whenever there has been heavy rain,” a worker on site told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Today we’ve collected enough trash that could fill some 70 large bags.”
The trash collected this way are dried and either recycled or incinerated.
Gimpo, Gyeonggi, also houses a facility to collect trash from the waters, along with two others in Yeongdeungpo District, western Seoul.
But part of the problem with plastic lies within the massive production of plastic goods, not only in Korea but around the world. And many are not recyclable.
A study by Roland Geyer of the University of California and others published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2017 found that approximately 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste had been generated around the world as of 2015.
Of them, only around 9 percent had been recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent was accumulated in landfills or elsewhere.
The team projected that if the no improvements are made in the rate of production of plastics and waste managements, roughly 12 billion tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or the natural environment by 2050.
“From the starting point in goods production, we need to think about the goods’ recyclability,” said Hong Soo-yeol, a civic activist and author of several books on waste management. “It is imperative for companies producing plastic goods to produce goods with high recyclability, and to minimize additional plastic productions.”
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announced last month a plan to reduce Korea's plastic waste in the oceans by 60 percent by 2030, and to have zero plastic waste from Korea in the oceans by 2050. For this, the ministry will be installing additional filtering devices in streams.
Local governments will be pitching into the plan.
“We are currently reviewing the best locations and methods to install these filtering facilities,” said Jang Jeong-gu, an official at the Incheon city government working on environmental conservation in the city, adding that hasty installations could lead to adverse effects such as floods or destruction of the natural habitats of wild species.
BY KANG CHAN-SU, CHUN KWON-PIL AND JEONG JONG-HOON [firstname.lastname@example.org]