With the upcoming move of Japan’s largest fish market from Tsukiji to a new site in Toyosu in November 2016, certain practices will change. The market will be more closed to the public, and it is important to consider what it means to take certain practices out of the public eye. In this case, it is the wasteful consumption of polystyrene or ‘Styrofoam’. The Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo was likely one of the most sublime markets in the world. I left there wondering how there was a living fish left in the ocean when considering the immensity of the commerce that happened there on a daily basis. To experience it in full swing, it was vital to go early. Officially, tourists weren’t allowed in the market until after 9am, but by then the vendors had finished the bulk of their business for the day. I attended the market in the summer of 2014 when it was in its final active years. Swimming with the flow of market goers from the Tsukijishijo station on the Oedo metro line I found my way in at 4:30am. Embedding myself in the tight weave of alleyways, it was a good couple of hours of meandering through stalls, photographing the Styrofoam towers of fish on ice before emerging into a larger alleyway and being nabbed by a guard as an obvious outsider. It was that point that I was flushed out with the tidal wave of Styrofoam that keeps the fish ‘fresh’.

One reason the market is being moved is to ‘control’ visits by outsiders. I’m certain that vendors tired of the foreigners who found their way in gawking in awe at the scale of the market. There has been more than a bit of harping in the realm of overfishing and species depletion, which is a just concern. However, for an island culture steeped in traditions defined by the sea, the prideful Japanese are in no mind to take such criticisms. Traditional food culture is important to maintain, and I certainly enjoyed a breakfast of sashimi in a retro sushi bar aside the market that morning. Treated as a once in a lifetime experience, I am happy to have had that quintessential Tokyo meal despite my concern for consuming depleted fish stocks. It was the most delicious sushi I’ve tasted, so my overall consumption of it since then has since declined.

What really confounded me was the massive amount of Styrofoam that grew into mountains before it was taken away with front loaders and dump trucks. Occasionally a lone scavenger could be found piecing together a set to re-use, but the vast bulk of it is loaded into trucks bound for…? Who knows where? My guess is the incinerator as polystyrene is listed as ‘burnable’. In this case, it releases toxins we consume through our lungs. There are some feeble attempts at ‘recycling’, but as far as I understand, no plastic is truly ‘recyclable’, it is only down-cycled into products that serve a limited useful life…and the material still stays around for a very long time. Best practice is to use less from the start. Unfortunately the fish trade will be a little less visible in the public eye, so we will have a hard time assessing if the overuse of polystyrene is curbed in the near future.


A lone scavenger sorts through boxes to re-use before they are carted away.
A lone scavenger sorts through boxes to re-use before they are carted away.

It was actually in Japan that a vital component to marine debris toxicity research was accomplished. Hideshige Takada, from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology found that plastic debris floating in Tokyo’s harbor absorbed persistent organic pollutants up to millions of times the concentration than in the ambient waters that surrounded the material. This eventually led to understanding how they are intricately tied to endocrine disrupting chemicals that persist in the oceans, to which all of our chemical us drain. They then enter the marine food web by de-sorbing into the flesh of marine life that consumes it, and biomagnify as they move up the food chain.  He founded the International Pellet Watch to gauge how toxic waters are in various parts of the world, incorporating a widespread citizen science effort which engaged the span of impacted communities on a scientific platform. His is an interesting method in that he has figured out how to use solid pollution to measure invisible toxicity. Understanding the links between solid plastic pollution and chemical contamination allows us to realize how this is a personal issue, intricately tied to our health, not simply an eyesore floating across a distant sea.

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