A Tsunami of Plastic

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Tsunami debris. Photo: Stiv Wilson

By Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres Institute

Out across a plastic stratified strand, two surfers, silhouetted in the failing light, are finishing a session. A year and half ago, this wasn’t a surf spot. A tsunami destroyed everything around here, shifting the coast enough to create virgin waves. Above the beach there is nothing but houseless foundations and the hum of heavy machinery trying to dig out. But the tsunami had another effect, too: the world finally woke up to the everyday pollution our oceans endure as the plastic zeitgeist of convenience we seemingly can’t avoid flows unchecked from every stream, river and sewer outfall in the world.

The mission of 5 Gyres Institute, the organization I helped kick start with co-founders Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, is to bring attention to the plight of plastic in our oceans by reinventing at-sea science research. By taking ordinary citizens, who have a vested interest in this issue, on our research excursions, we hope to inject more science into advocacy, dispel garbage patch myths and raise global awareness of the problem. By adding the cool factor of an epic and often brutal sailing adventure, we create fact-based communication tools for societal change, that traditional academia struggles to convey.

This is no cake walk—sailing across an ocean is serious business, and our crew not only contributes to the science work, they cook, scrub toilets, and sail the ship. The model has a life-changing effect on our crew, and they go on to become some of the most important advocates involved in solving this problem. Onboard, we talk about the interaction between plastics and chemicals, the implications for the fish that eat them and what that means to an apex predator of that food system, i.e. you and me. We talk about waste management. We are plastics nerds. But at the base of it all is an adventure with a purpose, and to me, the new model for outside recreation, if the ineffable sublimity we feel, crave and need from nature is to endure.


What’s astonishing to anyone who works in the marine debris/plastic pollution community is how much attention the tsunami debris has received. Though the tsunami itself is a big deal to us from a human tragedy perspective, the debris it caused is just the tip of the iceberg of the world’s oceanic pollution problem. Sometimes it takes a tsunami to remind us what our legacy will be if things don’t change. Plastic is forever.

Of all natural disasters in memory, the wave that hit Japan ranks amongst the most reported on events of all time. With horror, we watched from our televisions and computer screens a primeval nightmare manifest on the shores of Japan. Now, a over a year later we’re crowding beach parking lots in Oregon to see what artifacts have found their way over. Beachcomber networks have lit up, and state agencies responsible for cleanup have seen interest in the state of West Coast beaches skyrocket. But what’s difficult to convey to a world gone tsunami-debris mad is this: a tsunami of garbage enters the ocean every day. So let’s run the numbers to help understand the scale of the problem, the solutions, and to put the tsunami debris into perspective.


Amount of flotsam that entered the ocean during the Japanese tsunami: 3 billion pounds.

Amount of confirmed pieces of tsunami debris, 2012, 5 Gyres expedition: 3 (a light truck spare tire, broken boat, and Tatami mat)

Amount of plastic pieces observed every 3.6 minutes In Japan tsunami debris field, while traveling at an average speed of 6 knots: 1

Percentage of marine debris that was plastic in 41 hours of observation over 3,500 nautical miles: 98

Accuracy of human eye to detect and record absolutely every piece of plastic floating by: poor.

Amount of trash entering the ocean annually, from ships only, in 1975: 14 billion

Year of most current study estimating how much trash enters the ocean annually by ships: 1975

World population, 1975: 4,068,109,000

Amount of peer-reviewed studies estimating total amount of land-based contributions to plastic pollution in the ocean: 0

Amount of plastic production in the world, during 1975 and 2008 respectively, in millions of metric tons: 50, 250

Amount of plastic increase in the North Pacific Gyres in the last 30 years: 100x

Amount for which a fishing float, which may or may not be tsunami debris, is being sold in a Port Orchard, Washington, gift shop: $400

Percentage of trash entering the ocean that is plastic: 90

of plastic the average American consumed annually in 2001 and 2010, respectively: 223 pounds, 326 pounds

Current population of the United States: 314,220,127

of plastic estimated (from best existing data) to be in the gyres, which comprise 16 million square kilometers of ocean surface, in pounds: 73,878,000

Amount of ocean surface on planet earth in square kilometers: 361 million

Rate at which plastics concentrate oily toxins, relative to ambient water conditions: 1,000,000x

Percentage of Garbage Patch fish in which plastic was found in a Scripps study: 9

Amount of fish 5 Gyres caught to eat during the tsunami debris expedition: 3

Number, in 1994, of items on the seabed per square kilometer in the Mediterranean Sea: 1,935

Percentage of those items that were plastic: 77

Percentage of that 77 percent that were plastic bags: 93

Number of plastic bags consumed by the world every second: 60,000

Japan’s rank, in terms of plastic consumption, as estimated by Japanese plastics industry spokesman: 1

Percentage of the top 10 beach debris items found, worldwide, that are comprised of plastic: 70

Increase in phone calls to an Oregon beach cleanup coordinator due to tsunami debris: 1,000x

Had enough? The statistics go on and on. The more one digs, the more one will find that Japan’s contribution to ocean trash is only a fraction of what's going to end up on a beach. But what’s hopeful about such a devastating tsunami is that it's creating a tsunami-sized change in awareness of the real source of ocean plastic pollution: you and me.

The 5 Gyres Japan Tsunami Debris Expedition could not have been conducted without the generous support of some outdoor companies that care about the state of our world’s oceans: Osprey Packs, Klean Kanteen, Quiksilver Foundation, Teva and Patagonia.