A usually pristine Oregon beach, littered with debris. Photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation.
It looks like any other plastic bottle washed up on a beach, except that on its cap, next to the arrow – where it should say “Turn This Way” – are Japanese characters. And the beach where it was found is in Oregon.
Beach cleanup volunteers in Oregon are dealing with a massive increase in debris, as all the trash that washed into the sea during the Japan tsunami in March 2011 makes its way across the Pacific Ocean.
Coastal states are already struggling to dispose of all the debris, and are preparing for the situation to get even worse. Experts believe that about 40,000 tonnes of debris will arrive within 10 kilometres of the North American shore by next February. How much of it will actually wash up on beaches will depend on climactic conditions.
So far this year, the Oregon Parks Department has spent about 300,000 dollars on debris cleanup – more than double its annual budget of about 120,000 dollars. However, it’s hoping to receive federal grants as well as aid from Japan to help with these expenses.
The Parks department has established 32 drop-off sites along the Oregon coast, hoping that beachgoers will take it upon themselves to dispose of the debris they come across. Still, it’s relying heavily on volunteer organisations to go out and clean up the beaches.
The Japanese text on the cap reads "mukeru", which means "turn to open."

“There’s this overwhelming feeling, realising how much people lost”

Jenee Pearce-Mushen is the cleanup captain for the Cannon Beach division of SOLVE, a nonprofit organisation which has been cleaning Oregon beaches since 1984. Cannon Beach is located about 130 kilometres northwest of Portland.
Tsunami debris has been washing up on our beaches since September [about six months after it hit Japan’s coast]. But the worst is yet to come. Now, everytime there is a big storm, a huge surge of debris washes up on our shores. During regular beach cleanups, before this tsunami debris started arriving, we would pick up maybe 50 pounds of trash, usually left behind by beachgoers. But now, after a storm, we pick up several thousand pounds!
This is not your typical debris. There are a lot of plastic bottles with Japanese writing on them. We’ve found larger items, too, like a piece of a refrigerator. Further down south, another cleanup team found a whole dock. [Other large items found along the coast include boats and a container containing a Harley Davidson motorcycle, which was returned to its owner]. Most common, however, is Styrofoam, sometimes big pieces of it. This is difficult to clean up because it easily breaks into little tiny pieces, which are harder to pick out of the sand, and which will take years to break down. We recycle pretty much everything, except the Styrofoam, which is very hard to recycle.
Volunteers dig up pieces of a dock that washed up near Newport. Photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation.
“Living in a coastal area, you think, this could happen to us, too”
We’re hoping to have some good storms this winter so that all the debris that’s sitting out in the middle of the ocean comes in quickly, instead of spreading out over who knows how many years. Right now, the government and several organisations are putting lots of funds into the cleanup. Though there are many volunteers, it’s expensive - you need supplies to gather and dispose of the trash. [Removing the dock cost the state of Oregon 85,000 dollars, or about 66,000 euros]. It’s especially expensive when debris washes up on remote beaches, which can require the use of helicopters as well as the help of experts to remove. We’re working hard to ensure we have enough volunteers to deal with all the debris that has yet to arrive. Everyone is welcome to help – you don’t have to be local; we’ve got many tourists joining us during cleanups, too.
I’ve been cleaning up our beaches for years now, and my main concern is keeping them pristine, but with the tsunami debris, there’s also this overwhelming feeling, realising how much people lost. Living in a coastal area, you think, this could happen to us, too. In fact, the Japan tsunami inspired my city to come up with a preparedness plan, so we know where to head if disaster hits, and where to find containers filled with food and supplies.
Volunteers drag away trash and bags full of debris at Nestucca beach. Photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation.
Japanese words printed on a piece of insulation.
Part of a refrigerator washed up on Cannon Beach. Photo courtesy of SOLVE.
A bulldozer hauls away debris from Cannon Beach. Photo courtesy of SOLVE.
A bin full of debris found at Netarts Spit.