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Tsunami debris adds to 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch'

The trash accumulating in the Pacific Ocean – scientists estimate there are 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris alone -- is arriving on the West Coast. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

By Miguel Almaguer, NBC News correspondent 

LOS ANGELES -- The first wave has arrived. And now more and more tsunami debris is washing ashore on West Coast beaches seemingly every day.

From large docks, to a motorcycle, to boat buoys, states like Washington and Oregon are seeing most of the debris. But the hunt for larger masses of debris is underway, not on shore but instead deep into the Pacific.


NBC News was aboard the ORV Alguita , a southern California research vessel, as it departed Long Beach for one if its regular debris surveys.  Within just a few minutes captain and researcher Charles Moore yelled out, “We have some plastic here!”

 

In his net he quickly collected a handful of confetti-size pellets, or what the captain calls “dangerous … and deadly” debris that can be swallowed by marine life, and are toxic to the environment. Unfortunately the find is fairly common offshore southern California. But what many are unaware of is the “virtual garbage dump” swirling around in the middle of the Pacific.

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a  floating pile of debris too large and scattered to accurately measure,  has been growing for the past 40 years -- and now the tsunami debris is making it even bigger. There’s some debate on where it begins and ends, though researchers agree it’s hundreds and hundreds of miles off the West Coast.

Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Institute recently took NBC News on his vessel to hunt for debris. He discusses the dangers microplastics pose to marine life and ocean ecology. 

As explained by Moore, the garbage patch is essentially “big chunks of trash that are floating out in the ocean” … so big, in fact , Moore adds they are “creating new kinds of habitat.” Scientists say the garbage patch is a landfill of ocean debris that’s come together in a vortex of currents. Everything from fishing nets, to plastic bottles, and household goods that have been dumped or washed away converge in a system of currents that meet in the middle of the Pacific. The vortex draws debris floating in ocean currents and pulls them together, lumping them together where they can float for years.

An estimated 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris is believed to be in the Pacific. And while experts believe most of it will sink or never make it to shore, a good portion could add to an enormous problem out of sight … but not out of mind.

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