Plastic Surgery: Where Will Japan’s Tsunami Garbage Go?

SeriesEnvironmental cleanup in the wake of Japan’s twin disasters. Part 4 in a special series.

A surreal and compelling mix of headlines (read: Royal weddings, Osama bin Laden) may be dominating this week’s news, but the unfolding events in Japan after the March earthquake and tsunami – compounded further by nuclear plant instability – continue. Among the many significant issues: all that garbage.

Nothing illustrates the growing glut of plastic in the ocean from land-based sources like a natural disaster. All of those bleach bottles, all of those candy wrappers, all ending up somewhere. Whether littered or properly disposed of, it doesn’t actually matter when natural forces manifesting in the ocean overcome the borders of sea and land. And rather than death by a thousands cuts (plastic litter and watershed trash from land), Japan’s tsunami unleashed a vast amount of debris virtually overnight into the Pacific. (To see how the theoretical path of the debris works over time, click on this link to view an animation.)

This figure exhibits the projected pathway of flotsam that entered the ocean after waves hit Japan on March 11, 2011.  The model is based on historical data from drift buoys pinging GPS locations in The North Pacific over several years. Image Credit: Nikolai Maximenko, International Pacific Research Center.

The garbage is coming.

Within about a year, garbage will start hitting Hawaii’s shores and the coast of California within three, before circulating back out again to Hawaii and adding to The North Pacific Garbage Patch where it will circulate in the gyre.

Initially, it is difficult to determine how much we’re talking about, but think of it this way: Imagine taking all the plastic for a couple of miles or more from several cities situated on a coastline, and sucking it into the ocean. Think about taking thousands of grocery stores full of plastic products, all those single-use yogurt cups and half and half containers, lifting them all at once, and throwing them into the ocean. Think about all the dumpsters. The reycling bins. The storage facilities. The freight containers. Interesting, if disheartening, California beach-combing is on the way.

University of Hawaii at Manoa‘s Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner created the model. (Full disclosure: Maximenko advises the non-profit I work for on our gyre expeditions to search for plastic pollution.) Modeling, as a science, is still a very difficult enterprise as so many vectors affect how flotsam will actually travel when at sea. But judging by the vast amounts of debris pulled out to sea by Japan’s tsunami, the ultimate impact will be significant.

Finding remnants of the waste three to five years from now, after it has traveled thousands and thousands of miles at sea, will remind us as a society that although the 24/7 news cycle might forget past tragedies, plastic is forever. And it will remind us of the legacy of our culture. 24/7.

Editor’s note: This is part 4 in a special series on plastic. Read part 3, part 2 and part 1.

Images: Official U.S. Navy photographs