Researchers examine a buoy and refrigerator traced to the 2011 Japan tsunami. Debris like this is not normally seen in Hawaii, but the tsunami has sent a number of unusual items across the Pacific.
Intro Recently, Typhoon Vincent knocked cartons into the sea off the coast of Hong Kong. The cartons were filled with bags of small plastic pellets that are now spread far and wide across Hong Kong's beaches. The pellets themselves are non-toxic, but they are prone to absorbing toxins from the surrounding environment. If they are eaten by fish after they've absorbed toxins, the fish's flesh will become toxic as well. Once this happens it's a short jump to us consuming the now-toxic fish. Complex interactions like this are common in nature, but often overlooked by the media. Fish eating our discarded or spilled trash largely goes unnoticed, but it can have dire effects on many populations of humans and animals. We need to pay attention to all the ways and places where this trash leaves our hands and enters the ecosystem.
Gatahan, Malaysia The beaches of Gatahan in Malaysia would be a far more beautiful sight without the plastics. One good storm and these will wash out and join their bretheren in the Pacific Garbage Patch. Bottles like these were made from the plastic pellets currently sitting on the beaches of Hong Kong.
London Olympics Now, at the 2012 London Olympic Games, the beaches of England are crowded with spectators. Their trash, if not properly disposed of, could easily end up in the English Channel or be washed out to sea.
English Beaches Outside of the Olympics, other English beaches are experiencing events. Here, the Relentless Boardmasters pro-surfing competition is only part of a five-day surf-skate and music festival. Any rubbish left behind could easily spread to the surrounding waterways.
VIDEO: What's an Ocean Garbage Patch?
California It's not as easy as "don't be a litterbug." Here in California, a popular surfing destination, trash has piled up on a beach due to storms and swollen seas. The ocean swells will pull any trash left on the beach, but as mudslides often pull trash from other parts of the coastline, it's not just the beaches that can affect the oceans.
HOWSTUFFWORKS: The Pacific Garbage Patch Explained
"Turtle Sanctuary" Our Editor-in-Chief snapped this photo in Aruba. She writes on her blog,"At the top of the steps leading down to this 'sanctuary' was a poster talking about the importance of beaches like these in the Arikok National Park to breeding sea turtles." "When I went down to the beach, I found a headless doll, plastic bottles, flip-flops, a sneaker -- it was a joke how much garbage was there."
NEWS: Pacific Plastic Soup 100-fold Increase
Goa, India It's not just the West where trash can collect on the beaches. Here a beach in Goa, India, garbage and litter from plastic and glass lie entangled in vegetation. If washed into the ocean, the glass will eventually break down and return to sand, but the plastic will live for hundreds of thousands of years, likely finding its way to the "Great Pacific Patch."
ANALYSIS: Recycled Island to Be Built from Ocean Garbage Patch
Isle of Skye Trash dropped from one beach can find its way to other, more visible places than the Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, a beach on the Isle of Skye in Scotland is covered in trash that washed ashore.
ANALYSIS: Antarctic Garbage Patch Coming?
Hidden Trash Even if we attempt to dispose of our trash "properly" we can still affect the world's oceans. Plastic bags concealed in an old landfill are revealed as the edge is eroded away. This island in the United Kingdom will eventually begin to lose its long-hidden trash into the sea. Then, as sea levels rise around the world and weather becomes stormier, many areas with landfills near the water will do the same as they experience greater rates of coastal erosion.
ANALYSIS: Garbage Drone Could Clean Up Oceans
Passing on the Trash This small island in the Philippines is an attractive island, but it doesn't keep it from accumulating trash. If the residents of Hong Kong fail to clean the pellets from their beaches, the Olympic crowds toss their trash in the wrong place, or a storm washes plastic into the seas off California, eventually it will end up tainting these pristine beaches. If we're not careful, instead of digging for coins and enjoying a days catch on a beach vacation, we'll be digging for old water bottles and eating a fish that consumed those pellets.
Oyster buoys and refrigerator parts set adrift by the 2011 Japan tsunami are now rolling in with the tide on Hawaii's beaches, a new field survey reveals.
Black oyster buoys and refrigerator parts — and even a full refrigerator — that trace back to Japan have shown up on the islands of Oahu and Kauai, said Nicholas Mallos, a conservation biologist and ocean debris specialist at the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. Also on Oahu, researchers found a large 4-foot by 4-foot (1.2 by 1.2 meters) chunk of housing insulation framed in wood, a piece almost certainly sent into the sea by the devastating tsunami.
"These items have never before been seen on these beaches," Mallos told LiveScience.
The Japanese government has estimated the tsunami, which was triggered by an underwater earthquake in March 2011, swept about 5 million tons of wreckage out to sea. While 70 percent appears to have sunk offshore, the rest is floating in the Pacific Ocean. The first bit to show up in Hawaii, in September, was a barnacle-covered seafood storage bin.
Paradise of plastic
Exposed to ocean currents on every side, the Hawaiian Islands are a hotspot for Pacific junk. Some of this ocean litter originates from the fishing industry; most of the rest is consumer garbage from soda bottles, toys and other plastic goods, much broken down by the waves beyond recognition. [In Photos: Tsunami Debris & Ocean Trash in Hawaii]
At Kimalo Point on Hawaii's Big Island, tiny fragments of plastic penetrate as much as 3 feet (0.9 meters) below the beach surface.
"Many places on the beach, it's hard to differentiate the sand from the plastics on the surface," Mallos said.
The tsunami debris is different. For one thing, it tends to be larger, having only been in the ocean since March 2011, Mallos said. The debris also comes ashore in surprisingly homogenous waves. This summer, it was oyster buoys, Mallos said. Now, it's refrigerator parts.
The reason? Wind acts on similar objects in similar ways, according to research by Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii at Manoa's International Pacific Research Center. All of the tsunami debris went into the ocean at the same time, but some objects drift across the Pacific faster than others. That results in clusters of similar objects showing up in Hawaii and along the North American West Coast at the same time. (Tracking Tsunami Debris Infographic)
Small plastic fragments are a huge problem on Hawaii's beaches. At Kamilo Point on the Big Island of Hawaii, where this photo was taken, such fragments may penetrate three feet down in the sand.Nicholas Mallos
Mallos and colleagues from the Japan Environmental Action Network, the Oceanic Wildlife Survey and the Japan Ministry of the Environment just completed a beach survey in Hawaii in search of this tsunami debris. They found about six or seven items, including the rusted Japanese refrigerator and buoys, which very likely came from the tsunami, Mallos said.
"We're not seeing a massive wave of debris wash onto the shore at one time, but right now, what it's been is a slow accumulation of debris here and there," he said.
The tsunami debris is a problem, but it's part of a much bigger issue, Mallos said. Hawaii is awash with plastic trash from all over the world; the islands also neighbor the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the North Pacific where currents push masses of plastics into a suspended gyre of trash. Long story short: The oceans are a mess.
The Hawaii survey turned up masses of this typical ocean garbage, including fishing nets and traps, Mallos said. One of the stranger items was an intact plastic trashcan from Los Angeles County with "Heal the Bay" stickers on it. Heal the Bay is a nonprofit group that works to clean up California's Santa Monica Bay. In an unfortunate irony, one of the group's trashcans got into the ocean and floated some 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) to end up on a beach in Hawaii.
"It really highlights the fact that trash travels very far," Mallos said.
The average person can do their part to reduce ocean trash, Mallos said. Because consumer plastics are a huge part of the problem, resolving to use reusable grocery bags, coffee mugs and water bottles can keep one-time use plastics out of the oceans. The Ocean Conservancy has developed a free app, called Rippl, designed to nudge users into a more ocean-friendly routine by reminding them to take those sorts of small actions.
The problem of typical ocean trash is inextricably linked to the issue of tsunami debris, Mallos said. Tsunamis aren't preventable, but regular ocean litter is, he said.
"To the extent we can keep regular forms of ocean trash out of the ocean, in the face of disasters, the ocean becomes more resilient and better equipped to deal with the debris," he said.
The new survey was funded by the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency of Japan.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com.
More from LiveScience:
Waves of Destruction: History's Biggest Tsunamis
Images: Japanese Dock Washes Ashore in Oregon
Disasters at Sea: 6 Deadliest Shipwrecks
Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.