Debris that washed out to sea when a tsunami hit Japan’s northeast coast last year could soon end up in remote stretches of the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii, according to U.S. officials.
The tsunami debris will first reach land this winter on a small island northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, according to estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The trash— which could include such things as refirgerators and televisions — got caught up in ocean currents and is moving toward what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The patch is a Texas-sized area in the central North Pacific Ocean filled with marine litter — including high concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris from around the world — dropped there by oceanic currents. It has formed gradually over time since at least the late 1990s.
The nearby northwest Hawaiian Islands boast an array of marine life, including sharks, monk seals and other species, earning it a national monument designation under former President George W. Bush in 2006.
Dan Jacobson, legislative director for the advocacy group Environment California, said in an interview that it makes sense that some of the debris would end up near Hawaii.
“It isn’t surprising; it’s what we were expecting,” he said, adding that the remote area in the Pacific “is basically overflowing with plastic pollution.”
Other portions of the tsunami debris could reach the coasts of Oregon, Washington state, Alaska and Canada as soon as next year, NOAA officials said.
Below, watch a TED Talk by Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the first to discover the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
Jacobson said the best way to curb the amount of plastic collecting in the oceans is for consumers to stop using styrofoam cups and plates stop throwing away plastic bags after using them once. In the Washington area, the District and Montgomery County require shoppers to pay 5 cents to buy a plastic bag to hold purchases, an attempt to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags. Twenty cities in California have either phased out plastic bags or on track to do so.
Other governments in the D.C.-area are also considering adopting anti-plastic measures. Two bills are working their way through the Maryland state legislature. One would impose a statewide 5 cent fee on plastic and paper bags, while the other would allow Prince George’s County to impose their own bag fee.
Lori Arguelles, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, is working on behalf of the legislation and noted that her group will be leading the largest regional litter cleanup of its kind on April 14.
“Trash may seem like a problem that’s far away in places like the Pacific Ocean, but trash is also a local problem. Luckily for us it’s a problem that’s solvable,” Arguelles said. “We can all make a difference by doing simple things like securing lids on trash cans at home, disposing properly of litter, recycling, and carrying reusable bags instead of single-use plastic or paper.”