Japan’s 2011 tsunami turned cities into garbage.

When the sea finally receded, the landscape was buried under a staggering 27 million tons of debris that included everything from ships and ceiling tiles to light fixtures and photo albums. For some towns, the rubble was equal to a century’s worth of municipal waste.

Three years later Japan is still processing the mess, though most regions hope to finish by the end of this month.

“Big mountains are now small mountains,” said Chiharu Ito, who’s overseeing debris disposal for the town of Rikuzentakata.

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A similar, magnitude 9 megaquake in the Pacific Northwest could generate more than 24 million tons of debris from damaged buildings, bridges and other structures in Washington alone, according to one scenario. That’s at least a million dump-truck loads — and the figures don’t include tsunami debris.

Several cities and counties already have drawn up disaster debris-management plans. Seattle’s includes ready-to-go contracts with hauling and disposal firms and a list of places — like Woodland Park and the University of Washington campus — where debris could be stored temporarily.

Visiting Japanese experts advised Northwest officials to start sorting the debris immediately. In Japan, much of it was heaped up in piles first, then sorted — which added to disposal time.

In Japan, metal debris was recycled. Rock and concrete were earmarked for construction. Combustible materials are being burned in cement plants and 13 temporary incinerators.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com