Plastic is an amazing material, with innumerable uses; medical devices, plumbing and car parts, children’s toys, cell phones and computer cases, it is literally woven into the very fabric of our lives. But the tenacious grip of poorly managed plastic waste is burying us in every corner of our global society, from the raw boned Alaskan wilderness to the tropical paradise of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.
The scope of plastic pollution is difficult to convey. It exists on every shoreline of every oceanfront country in the world to some degree. Alaska’s rugged yet fragile coastlines are particularly vulnerable because of the dynamics of the Pacific Ocean’s circulation patterns. The proper response has begun right here by leaders such as Chris Pallister and his GoAK crew and COI is proud to work alongside them.
There is not an ocean shoreline on the planet immune to plastic pollution and the quantity and variety is staggering. On Alaska’s coast plastic waste is measured in tons, and much of that is derelict fishing gear and domestic waste from vessels.
Motoring out to the cleanup site took in breathtaking vistas which distracted us from the morning chill and wave-riding porpoises often came so close that their splashing speckled camera lenses and soaked our clothes. The spouts of great whales stood out in sharp contrast to the dark mountains and sea, while eagles and orcas cruised close by reminding us of why we were here.
We loaded into inflatable boats and shuttled onto an unforgiving rocky shoreline with our gear for the day including chainsaws for liberating debris trapped under logs, and sharp serrated knives for cutting through nets and ropes.
Clean Oceans International
Our team represents “Clean Oceans International,” an environmental non-profit from Santa Cruz, California looking for ways to make positive changes to a damaged ocean. COI programs have evolved around two central themes: technical innovation, and direct action—this expedition is our version of the latter.
Clean Oceans International is dedicated to eliminating plastic debris in the oceans through innovation, education and direct action. Our programs address the existing problem and provide tools to reduce and work towards eliminating future impacts through emergent technological innovation. In the process we educate students and communities and inspire personal action.
Gulf of Alaska Keepers
Gulf of Alaska Keepers (GoAK) was born in the aftermath of Exxon Valdez, the 1989 oil spill that still defines the danger of civilization’s addiction to fossil fuels.
GoAK is on the front lines in the battle to clean up plastics and this has profound implications for the environment here and on every continent, island and rock touching the sea—indeed, even in the ice of the Arctic and Antarctic worlds.
Our hosts led by example, efficiently moving down the shoreline collecting civilization’s debris and bagging it for removal later. Within a few days we also developed an eye for spotting out-of-place colors or textures in a woodpile or partially buried under newly sprouted grass.
COI volunteers working with GoAK’s team collected an unbelievable assortment and quantity of everyday items such as toothbrushes, dish soap bottles, toys, shoes and clothing. The single most common item found is plastic water bottles, evenly divided between North American and Asian labels. Large drums and bottles containing unknown liquids sometimes reminded us of the toxic nature of the problem we were working to solve.
In terms of weight the rope, nets and floats used for fishing take the title. One particular trawl net made of polypropylene required over 5 hours to extricate from the woodpile it was tangled in and it may have been over a half ton of plastic all by itself. It was estimated that our teams working together collected around twenty tons of plastic debris in the 5 days the weather allowed us to work.
You can support the work of Gulf of Alaska Keepers and Clean Oceans International through tax-deductible donations and volunteer for them or numerous other ocean stewardship organizations around the world. Join us on Facebook to stay informed.
Regarding technical innovation, one of our promising options is a Japanese-designed plastic-to-fuel conversion system that produces a liter of fuel from a kilo of plastic by raising the temperature in a closed system to the point that the plastic vaporizes. When it cools it returns to a liquid state and the resulting product blends well into diesel fuel at a fraction of the cost financially and environmentally. These small-scale systems are ideal for remote areas and isolated communities far from recycling infrastructure. We hope to prove it practical to install systems on vessels to visit problem areas and use plastic oil to power cleanup operations. COI is in discussion with tropical Pacific Island Nations with that strategy in mind.
We need your help! We cannot do this without your support. Please consider giving a donation toward the next leg of the project.