Posted on: 27 May 2015Share
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Fukushima, Japan, triggered a tsunami that washed some five million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Currents are still carrying some of it towards beaches in North America. Here are some insights into the disaster, a listing of some items being found and examples of commercial trash removal companies playing a part in the cleanup effort.
Much of the debris sank in the waters around Japan, but scientists estimate that about 1.5 million tons were caught in the Pacific currents. Tsunami debris started showing up in the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and there's no way of knowing how much is still floating in the ocean.
The latest reports, as of March 2015, note that a large chunk of this trash is about 25 miles off the North American coast. The trash dispersal is determined not only by the current, but by local wave action and the severity of local storms. Since the fall and winter of 2014-2015 were mild, it's likely that items still floating about will come ashore during the summer.
Types of Tsunami Debris Found
The type of tsunami debris found varies from entire vessels to chunks of plastic foam. Depending on the item, it is disposed of, recycled, or if possible, returned to Japan. Since debris frequently washes up on West Coast beaches, without Japanese labels or signs it's hard to determine the origin. After initial concerns about radiation, as of 2015, water testing showed the levels were extremely low.
Notable Large Items
One of the largest items landed on a beach near Newport Oregon in 2012. It was a 66-foot length of dock, loaded with seaweed and tiny marine creatures. Government officials removed the item after scientists tested the marine life, looking for invasive species. A similar dock washed ashore on a Washington beach.
Boats have also come ashore, including a 20-foot skiff found on the Long Beach peninsula in Washington. It was similarly tested and removed.
Another 27-foot boat came ashore in Oregon. This boat had safety warnings written in Japanese, so the origin could be verified. It was heavily damaged and covered with marine life. The boat was tested and put into a landfill.
Lumber and other building materials often wash ashore. Some are small enough to be carted out by weekend cleaning parties, others need heavy equipment. Much of the lumber is recyclable and is carted off by commercial waste removal firms or government crews.
Plastic bottles, fishing buoys, pieces of plastic foam, gas cans and small appliances are carted off by volunteers. Much of this is recyclable. Large 55-gallon drums are also found. Depending on the contents, they are disposed of or recycled.
How Commercial Waste Removal Firms are Helping
Each state and the province of British Columbia has their own master plan for coping with the debris. Much is done by volunteers, but in some instances waste removal firms are playing a big part in the cleanup.
The Oregon Coast
Oregon is one of the best examples of state parks and local waste removal firms working together. They've set up a network of 32 drop-off sites along the coast, accepting debris tied up in special beach cleaning bags. There is no charge for the drop offs. A reporting system is in place for items that are too big or too dangerous to be removed by hand.
Alaska and British Columbia
Coastal Alaska and the western coasts of Haida Gwai and Vancouver Island in British Columbia are covered with debris. Some of it is being removed by volunteers and disposed of by private boats, but the sheer volume is overwhelming.
Gulf of Alaska Keeper, an organization based in Seattle, came up with a plan to use a barge and helicopters to remove the debris and haul it back to a recycling plant in Seattle. The removal will cost roughly $900,000. Funds will come out of grants given to both British Columbia and the United States to help pay for cleaning up debris. The idea came about in March of 2015. Now it just has to pass cross-border legal hurdles. If approved, that waste removal/recycling plant in Seattle will be very busy.