Old Rubbish: In Spring of 2012, debris from the March 2011 Japanese Tsunami began washing up on Northwestern coasts of the Unites States. Although the exotic garbage— which included a football, a motorcycle, a 188-ton floating dock—captured the imaginations of many, by the fall of that year it began to take its toll on the budgets of the state and local governments charged with removing it.
While Japan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others scrambled to find funding to address the estimated 1.5 million tons of debris expected to wash to shore, groups of enthusiasts organized to collect, categorize, and in some cases, return what was lost.
The Latest Scoop: Recently, a large-scale effort to clean the shores of Alaska has brought the issue of tsunami debris back into the public eye. The project consisted of volunteers and commercial disposal workers who worked to collect debris from the difficult shorelines into giant batches known as super sacks.
The sacks—which can hold up to a 1,000 pounds of trash—were then transferred via helicopter sling to a barge that traveled along the coast from Kodiak to Seattle. The barge had collected nearly 3,500 sacks before it reached the city, according a Washington Post report.
The barge was eventually headed to Oregon where debris that was not sorted and recycled in Seattle will be deposited in a landfill. A collaboration of state agencies, nonprofits, federal grants, and the country of Japan funded the project.
The Real Dirt: While tsunami detritus has taught us important lessons about debris flows and raised public awareness; it’s a drop in the buckets of trash that plague the world’s oceans.
Everyday debris—which includes several mammoth patches in the Pacific—are a much more pressing issue. The floating garbage ruins marine habitats, interferes with navigation, poses health threats, and negatively impacts coastal economies. For more information about marine debris and updates on coastal cleanup throughout the United States, follow NOAA’s excellent Marine Debris Blog.