Debris Filled Disasters - Tsunamis of Trash and Storms of Sewage

Pollution is not at the forefront of our minds when a headline abruptly surfaces to reveal the sudden, imposing disaster which is bearing down on an unfortunate region on the other side of the world. The images depicting snaking lines of people frantically weaving through rubble or murky water instead conjures worries over death tolls, injuries and the loss of treasured homes and possessions; and rightly so. These immediate impacts of natural disasters uproot numerous people’s lives each year, with calculations estimating 200 million are annually affected as nature firmly reminds us that we are not really in control of our planet at all. Yet once the disaster has moved on, forgotten by newspapers, TVs and ourselves, damage remains, and may be spreading further across the globe than you realise.

With each strike of disaster, buildings crumble, rainfall and flood waters sweep items away from their homestead and services such as power lines, sewage systems and drinking water supplies are upset. This results in an enormous amount of waste being created in such a small window of time which leaves authorities struggling to manage the jumbles of concrete, wood and plastic. While diggers, lorries and workers grapple to tame the monstrous heap of newly formed rubble, the rebellious remnants of wind and rain wash anything from plastic bottles to concrete walls out to sea where they are whisked away by tides and currents, largely vanishing from our sight, let alone our hands and litter bins. While some pieces remain in shallow nearshore waters, this only serves as a safety hazard, both a source of bacteria but also as a new obstacle blocking the path of heavily laden vessels.

One of the greatest examples of how damaging and extraordinary this source of pollution can be lies in the form of a tsunami. In March 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck the seabed off the coast of Japan, subsequently sending a tsunami crashing over the coastline and flooding 217 square miles. While many scientists were hastily determining the impact to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, others calculated that five million tonnes of debris was washed into the ocean as the ferocious tidal wave retreated back to its ocean depths, dragging with it boats, building slabs, the contents of kitchen cupboards and even whole rubbish bins full of dedicatedly collected waste. An estimated 30% of this debris dispersed in the ocean and within less than a year, tsunami-related rubbish was found silently washing ashore on the West coast of America; a motorcycle in Canada, a concrete dock in Oregon and a football in Alaska. Intrepid volunteers set about not only clearing up this mass pollution incident but also, in some cases, returning lost items. For others, merely the intrigue of finding various consumer goods provides a modernised form of beachcombing. Amongst the many kayakers, surfers, divers and walkers, one individual found within a single heap of lumber; a laundry hamper lid, unused cough syrup, a variety of glass bottles and part of a toilet. In essence, they stumbled into a Japanese bathroom during their stroll on America’s Pacific coast. Four years after the disaster, more than 100,000 Japanese objects have floated onto North American shores, a level ten times higher than the average litter count. On closer inspection, these escapees in total have facilitated the transport of 300 different marine species across the Pacific Ocean over several years as plastic provides a long-lasting mode of travel. This modern day Noah’s ark is perfect for invasive colonisers like mussels, barnacles and crabs who may now seek to dominate a new coastline.

Tropical storms, hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are all characterised by high winds, heavy rains and severe flooding, with extreme rainfall in Turkey washing not only littered plastic but also chemicals, oil and manure off the land and into the sea, increasing the level of microplastics in the Mersin Bay by 14 times and placing the lives of local marine species at much greater risk. It doesn’t stop at Turkey either with Typhoon Mangkhut driving so much plastic into Hong Kong that the pavements completely disappeared while in the Philippines it wreaked havoc in the Pasig River. However, locals took advantage of this mass pollution and used it to identify the key local industrial culprits who were responsible for the disowned plastic onslaught which was open for the elements to take and has now provided a basis for stricter laws against these ocean offenders.

Plastic is now even creating its own not so natural disaster as poorly manged piles of garbage can cause landfill landslides, burying any thing and any one in its path. But let’s leave the doom and gloom behind for a moment and look for the positive in this scary scenario. While these events are undeniably disastrous, there are always individuals who look for the light in the darkness. After a mountain landslide in India, triggered partially by plastic blocked rivers, the local area has placed a ban on these synthetic intruders while other countries are constantly working to reduce their waste altogether. Heavy flooding in Yorkshire saw the community race to clean up the deluge of plastic which the water left haphazardly on their countryside to stop the tidal wave of plastic reaching further than their waterways; a gallant act at a time when their lives had been uprooted from almost every angle. We can all play our part no matter how far we are from hurricane paths and quaking fault lines. Just supporting the use of reusable plastic minimises the load these events can steal away from us while keeping rivers, streams, shorelines and storm drains clear will also stop their hasty escape into the sea. Many areas experience heavy rain or blustery wind at some point in the year and any clean up of plastic litter you do before or after these events could really make the difference to your local favourite marine species while an overall shift in lifestyle will prevent the level of rubbish available in the first place. For the activist in you, pushing for more careful waste management practices should be firmly on the agenda as we brace ourselves for increasingly violent weather under our warming climate. While the climate may be an unstoppable force of nature, our caring, spirited and always resilient population can form an equally unstoppable force against plastic’s global invasion.  

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair