I like this story, it's got some legs to it. You read it once and don't believe it, you read it twice and start doing the math and it blows your mind, then you think about it little while longer and you realize this has all the earmarks of Y2K or 2012 all over it. The press is going to run with this one I bet and scare us all into buying ridiculous amounts of bottled water. So lets look at this and break it down, shall we?
In case you haven't already heard, there is a massive collection of debris that is floating it's way across the Pacific Ocean and is slated to arrive on US shores sometime around 2014. This debris is from the Tsunami in Japan last spring following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that occured. The time frame on this is a little unclear though. Some of the articles seem to be jumping on the "It's going to get here wayyyy faster bandwagon", but the general concensus seems to be that the debris will start to wash up in Hawaii in 2013 and the following year in the Pacific Northwest region of North America.
So that's it, we will all be over run by radioactive garbage on the pacific shores right? Don't fret, experts don't believe that there will be much in the way of radioactive materials, their reasoning is that only a small amount of the debris washed out to sea came from the area of Fukushima. As for that debris which comes from the affected area, worry not as experts maintain that saturation in salt water for such a long duration should bring levels of radioactivity down to very trace amounts. The fact that a Russian freighter pulled a fishing boat out of the debris that hailed from the region of Fukushima will no doubt be pointed out by the press to scare the bejeezus out of everyone. This fact seems to be popping up in a lot of these articles and are probably what gave it the legs for the story to appear on news outlets around the world.
What did scare the bejeezus out of me when I first starting reading these articles was the sheer volume of debris headed our way. Experts estimate 5-20 million tons of debris. So at their high estimate that would 40,000,000,000 lbs of trash. Yep, let that sink in and think about it. 40 billion pounds. So I started doing math... and it got scarier. Let's break it down;
- The maximum weight limit for a 40' cargo container (on average) is 44,000 lbs. So if you loaded 40' containers (the kind you see everyday on the highway and trains by the way) with all of the debris to haul it away you would need approximately 909,091 containers loaded to the maximum weight limit.
- The combined total imports for 2010 into the United States for the top 5 importers, Wal Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe's & Sears is approx 980,000 40' containers. So imagine every product we will buy from all these guys combined over a one year period, that's what is floating over here.
- New York City produces on average a total of 25,000 tons of trash per day which means that this would be around 800 days worth of the Big Apple's trash.
- As of 2008, the average citizen produced 4.5 lbs of trash per day. With an average population of 300,000,000 people in the United States, that means that this would be the equivilant of 29.6 days worth of trash landing on shore.
So can you imagine if this were true? The way most of these articles read, they would have you believe that the debris will arrive without fail, all at once and land somewhere around the Pacific northwest, with the coast of British Columbia being affected as well. I don't think it's going to go down this way though. I did some research and after sifting through the same basic article being rehashed hundreds of times, I found some articles that were written last April that had a different stance on what is going to happen. First it is likely that not all of the debris will make the journey all the way across. Some of the debris will break apart and sink to the ocean floor as it falls away from parts that float. Some of it will simply biodegrade in the salt water too. Of course that still leaves a lot of plastic and other items that will not biodegrade on it's watery journey. So what will happen with that debris you ask? Well the way the ocean currents work in the pacific, some of the debris will head northwards and end up of in the gulf of Alaska and the shores of northern British Columbia. Some of the other debris will travel in a circle due to the North Pacific Gyre and eventually end up back in Japan and other parts of Asia. The Gyre is the natural current of the North Pacific ocean and has been studied for many years so you can't really discount what experts believe will happen with the debris based on historical data and research. Finally some will also end up in the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" which is a swirling mass of floating debris that rests out in Pacific and grows annually due to the North Pacific Gyre as well.
Let's look at the other side of the issue and say that I'm completely wrong. I certainly could be given my lack of scientific knowledge of our ocean and it's cause and effects on floating debris. Well what happens then? There is no doubt that the debris would pose a huge threat on the environment and businesses based on the coast such as fishing, shipping, etc. Even a small portion of the amount they predict will arrive would be problematic, so this may be a classic case of the press overselling us on the impact so when it does occur, we will see it as more of a let down, then as a major problem. Like when that snowstorm or hurricane doesn't end up nearly as bad as the news led us to believe.
No matter how this all turns out, in the end you can see why the Great Debris Flotilla of 2014 will probably end up to be a terrible bust. But one thing I can predict is that the wonderful press will likely run this story into the ground and figure out a way for all of us to panic and race to the grocery store for water, bologna and toilet paper.
Leave your thoughts below if you care to and thanks for taking the time to read this.