Nightly News   |  July 11, 2012

Tsunami debris joins growing pile of refuse in Pacific

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.

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>>> we've been reporting on the growing wave of debris in the pacific from last year's tsunami in japan. we have seen soccer balls and boats, a motorcycle, even a giant dock come on our shores. tonight we're being told it's just the start. there's a lot more out there. also tonight we want to take you with the scientists to see what that next wave is up to, the wash on american shores. our report from nbc's miguel almaguer.

>> reporter: the hunt is on. it only takes minutes for this research vessel off the coast of california to find what it's looking for.

>> a wrapper, styrofoam.

>> reporter: much of the debris here is small, the size of confetti.

>> when we talk about a poison pill , this is what we're talking about.

>> reporter: further out at sea, researchers say the great pacific garbage patch is a debris field too large and scattered to measure.

>> big chunks of trash that are floating out in the ocean are creating new kinds of habitat, as if it's a coastal zone in the middle of the deep ocean .

>> reporter: the pacific garbage patch has been growing for 40 years. but now debris from the japanese tsunami is also caught in the swirling mass of ocean currents .

>> it's going to add an enormous amount to the garbage patch that's already in existence out there.

>> reporter: though scientists believe most of the estimated 1.5 million tons of debris will never make it to shore, it's what is arriving on our shores that's cause for concern. we're seeing more of it every day. in alaska, buoys and bottles. in washington state a small skiff with a load of barnacles. this pier in oregon arrived carrying marine life . they treated this find as an archaeological dig , parts of a japanese home , a toilet, fertilizer. the cleanup could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

>> we are in for a steady dribble of tsunami debris over the next few years.

>> reporter: the environmental cost remains unknown. hundreds of millions of organisms, some invasive species arrive ashore on the debris.

>> all kinds of life.

>> reporter: this just the first wave in a tsunami of trash churning in the pacific. miguel almaguer, nbc news, los angeles .