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With Helicopters And Barges, Alaska Is Still Cleaning Up Japanese Tsunami Trash

Is this the world’s most difficult trash collection route?

With Helicopters And Barges, Alaska Is Still Cleaning Up Japanese Tsunami Trash
[Top Photo: Flickr user Colin Davis]

Four years after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Alaska is still dealing with the aftermath in the form of trash washing up on its shores.

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Alaska, which has more coastline than any other U.S. state, has been collecting the flotsam since it began arriving and is now airlifting it out. The debris is currently sitting around the country, like stacks of dirty dishes in a shared student apartment, waiting to be collected.

The next stage is to ship the trash somewhere, and for that, Alaska has deployed a huge football-field-sized barge–at a cost of $17,000 per day–to cruise the coast and collect the bags. Once the barge is full, it’ll be taken to Seattle to sort the trash for recycling. But this is no ordinary trash-collection route.

Flickr user mazaletel

First, regular garbage-persons don’t have to deal with bears, and they don’t have to camp out on rugged coastlines. Technicians travel into remote spots by boat, and sleep on those boats as they move down the coast, continuing the cleanup. The trash has been left ready to collect, just like the trash cans you leave at the curb every week.

Some of the locations are so remote that the collected junk will be airlifted onto the barge by helicopters. Most of the washed-up debris is stable–neither radioactive, chemical nor organic–so it has been safe to leave the bags waiting. Most of the ocean-junk is similar to the usual pollution that arrives on Alaska’s coastlines: fishing nets and buoys, bottles and jugs, ropes. But there is some unmistakable debris from the 2011 disaster: boats and fragments thereof, chunks of buildings, and crates used by Japanese fishermen.

The cleanup is expensive. An estimated 70% of the earthquake debris sank off the coast of Japan, still leaving 1.5 million tons of junk washing through the world’s oceans. Japan gave the U.S. $5 million to help with cleanup efforts, but Chris Pallister, president of the cleanup organization Gulf of Alaska Keeper, told Seattle’s Komo News that the barge operation alone will cost $1.3 million.

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About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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