The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 killed nearly 16,000 people, and reminders of that disaster are still washing ashore, thousands of miles away on the coast of Alaska.
This summer, a massive cleanup effort is underway. Crews are picking up and bagging tons of debris that were swept out to sea when the tsunami hit. It's a painstaking and emotional process.
Chris Pallister of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group dedicated to removing marine debris from Alaska's coast, discusses the cleanup with Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.
Interview Highlights: Chris Pallister
On the volume of debris washing up on Alaska's coast
“The gulf of the Alaska coast has always had a lot of marine debris on it, but after the tsunami hit, the volume of debris has doubled since then. That translates into, depending on which beaches you’re on, between 10 and 20 tons of plastic per mile.”
“It looks like a linear landfill. It’s just garbage as far as you can see, walking down the shoreline. Some of these areas, the zone is pretty narrow because the beach is very steep, backed by cliffs, and in other areas the debris is scattered over 100 or 200 yards deep in the forests and stuff.”
On the emotional toll of cleaning up a disaster
"We never forget for a moment that we’re kind of mucking around in a graveyard out there."
“Especially poignant to me is when you find shoes. These shoes we’re finding are worn shoes - you know they came out of somebody’s closet or hallway or even off their feet. When you start thinking about that, it’s actually pretty disturbing. We never forget for a moment that we’re kind of mucking around in a graveyard out there.”
On what the effort involves, and where the debris goes
“This is an extremely rough shoreline, very remote, so you basically get on there by foot in most places. We take boats to the shore and then you’re working on foot and there’s no heavy equipment, and you're just removing all this stuff by hand, basically. And about only power tools we use on the job are chainsaws to saw through drift logs and stuff so we can get a lot of the nets and lines out. Then we come back later and sling it off the shoreline with helicopters and put it on a barge.”
“We’re shipping it down to Seattle and we’re going to have it recycled. A group called Parley for the Oceans from New York has taken over that portion of it for us and they're going to sort it and take out what they can use for their recycling processes and then the remainder will go to a landfill in Astoria, Oregon.”
On the environmental importance of the cleanup
“People always ask 'Why do it? More is just going to keep coming.' Well, what’s the alternative? We’re just going to let it keep piling up until it’s completely buried our beaches? Besides the fact that we have now cleaned over 1,500 miles of shoreline and rehabilitated a tremendous amount of habitat, it’s recognition that’s being brought to this problem by all the folks like us doing cleanup work. That’s probably the biggest payoff in the long run because this is a serious, serious environmental problem. I personally think it only ranks after global warming and ocean acidification as ‘the big three’ I call them, that are going to really harm the ocean. And we really need to get after this. I think the fact that people are working on it and bringing attention to this is the most important thing.”
This segment aired on July 27, 2015.