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Debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami that washed ashore to be sorted, recycled in Seattle

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SEATTLE -- More than four years after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, debris still litters the U.S. coastline from Alaska to California.

A barge filled with 1 million pounds of that debris is now docked in Seattle.

Chris Pallister, co-founder of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, said the mountain of debris is also a graveyard.

“In all of these bags there’s remnants of people’s lives,” he said. “Crushed buildings, businesses, personal effects. Shoes, there’s thousands of shoes on that barge and a lot of them came off the feet of people.”

Thousands of bags fill a barge the size of a football field. Everything from soda bottles, to Styrofoam and fishing nets, it all washed onto the Alaskan and Canadian shoreline.

Most of it floated thousands of miles away after the 2011 tsunami killed more than 15,000 people along the coast of Japan. But the piles of debris shipped to Seattle are only a fraction of what’s been lost.

“We cannot prevent the natural disasters, but we have courage and knowledge to face the challenging situation together,” said Tsuyoshi Ohtsuka, of the Japanese Consulate.

The challenge is cleaning up the thousands of miles of coastline in some of the most inaccessible places on Earth.

“It’s destroying habitat, destroying wildlife, negative impacts on our fisheries and resources,” said Pallister.

Helicopters filled the barge with giant trash bags. After two years of cleanup, Waste Management and volunteers will sift through the debris and determine what can be recycled.

The Japanese government paid for most of this cleanup effort. U.S. officials insist none of the debris has dangerous levels of radiation.

Pallister said there is still more work to be done as the world’s oceans are filled with trash.

“It’s one of the greatest environmental tragedies on the planet right now,” he said.