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The Hidden Tsunami of Debris

By Stuart Coleman // September 26, 2012 // Originally published on

One way or another, oceanic waste gets to us.

A large, blue container with Japanese writing, which washed ashore near Sea Life Park in mid-September, is the first documented piece of tsunami debris from Japan. Last week, a concrete dock, also marked in Japanese, was sighted off Molokai.

“Hawaii is on the leading edge of the tsunami debris field,” says Dr. Jan Hafner, who works with Dr. Nikolai Maximenko at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center. Based on their computer models, Hafner says “a slow trickle” of debris will continue hitting island shores into winter and spring. But the tsunami debris is part of an even bigger wave of plastic pollution.

Almost half of all plastics produced today go into throw-away single-use applications. For the past seven years, Dr. Marcus Eriksen has spent much of his life at sea, trying to track down this mystical place–“away.” After sailing with Captain Charlie Moore to the Pacific Garbage Patch in 2005, he saw first hand the extensive amount of plastic debris that collected in the ocean.

After discovering that there were at least four other such garbage patches in the world’s major oceans, Eriksen and his newlywed wife Anna Cummins formed an environmental non-profit called the 5 Gyres Institute (a gyre is a spiral or circle) to study the issue and posit solutions. Since then, they have sailed more than 30,000 miles, studying plastic pollution and its effects on the environment and human health.

In May and June alone, Eriksen went from Majuro to Japan, then Tokyo to Hawaii. These were difficult journeys because Eriksen had to leave behind his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.

While Eriksen was at sea surveying plastic marine pollution, Cummins was at home writing about how synthetic plasticizers and other toxic chemicals had made their way into her body and even into that of their unborn baby.

Eriksen and some of his expeditionary crew members traveled to the Miyagi Coast, north of Fukushima. Walking among ruins, they were stunned by the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami. “We just saw miles and miles of coastline flattened, just concrete slabs,” Eriksen recalls. “I’m from New Orleans, and I saw the Katrina aftermath, but this is like 10 Katrinas.”

In addition, “15-20 million tons of debris washed out to sea…most of that construction waste,” Eriksen says. More than a year later, he and an international group of researchers set up a voyage to assess the amount of debris making its way across the ocean. Delayed by one typhoon and chased by another, Eriksen and the crew of the research vessel Sea Dragon sailed 3,800 nautical miles on a 28-day voyage from Tokyo to Honolulu. They recorded 690-plus pieces of trash, about one every 3.63 minutes.

“All surface trawls contained plastic,” says Dr. Hank Carson, a professor at UH-Hilo who traveled with Eriksen on the voyage and teaches a course on marine debris. “The most common objects found were Styrofoam, followed by unidentified fragments of hard plastic, fishing gear (buoys, net, rope, etc.), and plastic bottles.” Carson adds, “Even outside of the generally-accepted ‘accumulation zones,’ such as the center of the North Pacific Gyre, I was constantly surprised out how well we have littered something as vast as the Pacific Ocean.”

After surveying the Japanese tsunami debris field, Eriksen stopped in Hawaii in early July on his way back to L.A. He was eager to “talk trash” and share the findings from his harrowing expedition. They had expected to find much more plastic marine pollution in the Japanese tsunami debris field, but found a global problem instead as large ocean currents swirl trash around like a giant toilet bowl that never flushes.

“A year later [after the tsunami], most of the construction material is gone,” Eriksen says. He explained that most of the wood and metals have deteriorated and sunken already, leaving mostly floating plastics.

So what can be done? Extended Producer Responsibility. It is an increasingly popular policy to make companies more responsible for the life cycle of their products, from design and distribution to recapture and recycling. Eriksen argues that by promoting EPR, companies will design better, safer and less wasteful products.

Most plastics are made with chemical additives like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, known endocrine-disruptors that can lead to obesity, infertility, cancer and other health problems.

Micro-plastics also absorb the toxic chemicals from pesticides, flame-retardants and polluted runoff. When fish and marine creatures mistake these toxic micro-plastics for food, the poison travels up to the food chain to foods we eat.

“There’s a chemical body burden that all humans carry, especially women,” Eriksen said. “The Environmental Working Group did a study in which they looked at the umbilical cord blood of 10 newborn babies. On day one, the cord between the baby and the placenta was analyzed, and it showed that the blood found in all 10 babies had 287 synthetic chemicals.”

“We are walking synthetic chemistry experiments,” Eriksen adds. “If you look at the breast milk of the Inuit [people], for example [who eat primary marine mammals],they have some of the highest pollutant loads in their breast milk.”

Eriksen was relieved when Cummins gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Avani (“earth,” in Hindi). Through their work, the new parents hope to protect her, the planet and all people from the rising tide of marine plastic pollution and toxic chemicals.

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