Most tsunami debris must be removed from the ocean by hand

By:  Joshua Kinne
Source: KPLU 88.5

How do you remove from the ocean more than 100,000 tons of Japanese tsunami debris heading for Northwest shores? By hand, says one expert.

“When you’re talking about open ocean … It’s a very big ocean,” says Andrea Neal, an experienced ocean cleaner. “There isn’t a whole lot being done in the open ocean.”

That’s because most programs devoted to cleaning marine debris focus on prevention and coastal cleanup. When crews do confront debris in the open ocean, cleanup efforts require hands, a ship and supplies which can cost more than $35,000 per day to operate, because the composition of the debris makes it difficult to get out of the ocean.


The debris, the total amount of which ranges into the millions of tons, is riddled with plastics, naturally buoyant materials, refrigerators and even cars. Small plastics are difficult to pick up because they’re too small for nets, while fridges and cars are heavy for crews to lift.

The debris field also might contain hazardous chemicals, human pathogens, pre-1970’s sludge waste and researchers aren’t ruling out that the debris could be radioactive. These chemicals, pathogens or even radiation make it dangerous for workers to clean, which means cleaning it by hand is very difficult.

“This is going to require a very specialized approach,” says Neal, who is the President of Blue Ocean Science and a consultant for Project Kaisei. “To be honest, we don’t really know how much and we don’t really know the types of debris that are going to show up on our coastlines.”

Blue Ocean Science and Project Kaisei are organizations devoted to cleaning marine debris in the world’s oceans. Recently, groups at the University of Hawaii tracked the movement of tsunami debris across the Pacific Ocean using trajectories from drifting buoys. Groups like Blue Ocean Science and Project Kaisei have been working to clean places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where the tsunami debris is expected to stop moving.


Neal says that the effort to clean tsunami debris is already underway, but gathering funds is a problem when planning expeditions.

Senator Maria Cantwell gathered support from the senate for cleaning expeditions. Neal says these funds will trickle down from large organizations like NOAA, but the process can take more than a year and cleaning expeditions will be beginning in January. She says most organizations rely on private donations.

In a recent public webinar, activists said tsunami debris is expected to reach Northern Hawaii and Midway Atoll in the coming weeks.

Debris will not reach Northwest coasts until 2014. However, Neal and Sen. Cantwell both agree something must be done to limit the impact of dangerous debris on the environment and Northwest life now. Once groups have hands-on experience with the debris, Neal says they will have a better idea of how to approach the problem.