We are getting close to March 11, 2012, the first anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Fukushima, Japan. Unprecedented pictures and videos are definitely still through our eyes and minds whenever we remember the M 9.0 earthquake that hit the coast of Honshu, Japan's most populous island near Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11, 2011 at 05:46:23 UTC (roughly 231 miles Northeast of Tokyo).
More than 16.000 dead people, hundreds of billion dollars infrastructure damages and a very serious leak of nuclear radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant were the main direct consequences of this catastrophic event.
From a waste management point of view, there is still a huge problem regarding the million tons of waste, mainly debris but including a lot of hazardous waste too, that were created during the tsunami strike. Just to have an idea of the disaster, only in Sendai city there is more than one million tons of waste wiring to be removed and managed during the next 3 years. The cleanup is expected to cost at least $1.3 billion!
Just imagine the overall quantity of debris is expected to be more or less around 25 million tons. As for the overall cost, it is expected to far exceed the $3.2 billion required to dispose of 15 million tons of debris in the Japanese city of Kobe after its 1995 earthquake.
A second problem, with really global dimensions is related to the mass of debris that was washed out to sea as floodwaters receded from the land, and some of that wreckage continues to float around the ocean.
According to a recent report by the Hawaii-based International Pacific Research Center ( IPRC), so far, the debris field has spread in an area that is approaching 4,000km by 2,000km.
It is estimated that more than a million tons of waste are floating and most of it is headed eastwards, moved by the Kuroshio Current, the North Pacific equivalent of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic.
IPRC creates daily updates of the debris movement through Pacific Ocean(see tracking debris).
Updates are provided by extensive modeling work led by Nikolai Maximenko. According all estimations more than 90% of the tsunami debris that has not sunk will move into the North Pacific "Garbage Patch", a long-lived circulation of floating rubbish trapped by the North Pacific Gyre.
I think that there are three comments, related to waste management that we can make in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami.
First, although in Japan there is one of the most advanced waste management systems in the world, current systems and technologies were simply inappropriate to manage the astonishing quantities of waste produced by the tsunami.
Second, please imagine what will be the consequences if the earthquake target was not Japan, but another country with less technologies and resources available, maybe characterized by poverty and low living standards. And definitely, such disasters can be also produced not only by earthquakes but from extreme weather phenomena as well, as it is the aftermath of the New Orleans’ disaster.
Third, the floating tsunami debris is one more alarming signal for the need to manage the ocean garbage problem. If we simply wait for a magic solution that will suddenly appear, the problem will be more and more difficult to be solved and the cost will be really prohibitive.
It seems that we need to do much more in order to create waste management emergency responses to events that create really global impacts! The global waste management community has to start an intensive collaboration in order to create networks and cooperation patterns that will allow the management of debris in such extreme phenomena and not only. The only thing that will be an appropriate response to the gigantic natural forces that create such disasters is the power of the massive collaboration of human beings, through a variety of different channels. Let’s do it…