Ocean awash with tsunami trash

Japan is a country where homeowners and shopkeepers sweep up in front every morning and garbage collection points are spick-and-span. Schoolchildren are taught to clean their classrooms. Cleanliness is one of Japanese culture’s most strongly held values. So, it is maddening, and embarrassing, that an estimated 20 million tons of Japanese waste was washed into the Pacific Ocean following the March tsunami.

Scientists at the University of Hawaii say that the field of debris has spread out across an area roughly 3,200 km long and 1,600 km wide. Trash from Japan is already washing up on the Midway Islands. By spring, it will wash up on Hawaiian beaches, then continue spreading until it reaches the West Coast of the U.S.

After that, the trash will circle in Pacific currents until becoming trapped in the North Pacific Garbage Patch, an area about the size of Texas where garbage gathers through the circling force of the ocean’s currents. Once in the Patch, the Japanese waste will mix with other pollutants and slowly dissolve into smaller particles, polymers and chemical sludge. The disintegrated waste particles will then be ingested by any of several hundred aquatic species.

Of course, Japan did not intentionally toss the waste into one of the main sources of its food supply. It was washed away by the tsunami. The amount of debris from smashed buildings and houses, washed-away cars and ships, and all the sad detritus from homes and schools and workplaces seen on TV footage is less than what was washed out to sea. Rubber, fabric, and plastic are buoyant enough to travel far and wide, while heavier materials — metal, glass and dense, toxic plastic — sink closer to shore.

Japanese need not feel ashamed, but they can take a moment to understand the consequences of their consumerism. Consumer products do not just disappear. They have long-lasting and far-reaching environmental consequences. Japan should get involved in the cleanup. Despite so much left to clean up at home, it can still help to track and analyze its marine debris.

Japan should also enact something similar to the Trash Free Seas Act of 2011, a bill proposed in the U.S. Senate that aims at preventing and reducing marine debris. For those who intentionally pollute, Japan should enact stricter punishments. The tsunami was nobody’s fault. But sometimes you have to help clean up anyway.