The World´s Most Beautiful Garbage Dump Is Spelled A-L-A-S-K-A (TAKEPART)

The World’s Most Beautiful Garbage Dump Is Spelled A-L-A-S-K-A

An expedition of artists and scientists document the endless detritus washing up on Alaskan shorelines.

August 19, 2013

ocean garbage pollution alaska

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the remote Aleutian Islands, the string of volcanic islands that hang like a diamond necklace between Alaska and Russia. On one trip, we kayaked for five weeks throughout the frigid waters and even climbed the volcanoes. We saw no one, not a tanker on the horizon, not a plane overhead, not a fishing boat.

The only sign of man was the incredible amount of plastic pollution that had washed off ships and shore. Masses of fat rope and fishing nets, plastic beer cases from Japan, every imaginable size of plastic bottle and multicolored plastic broken into tiny bits—all of it driven high up onto island beaches by savage winter storms.

I still have a memento from that trip hanging in my garage, a wooden sign that says “Watch Your Step,” in Japanese.

I flashed back to those weeks and that pollution while reading the dispatches from another Alaskan coast this summer, by my friend Carl Safina, prolific writer and president of the Blue Ocean Institute. He had joined, as chief scientist, an expedition made up of scientists and artists who purposely went to study and collect beach trash for an upcoming exhibit put together by the Alaska SeaLife Center and the Anchorage Museum. Tomorrow, August 20, National Geographic will air a video detailing Carl’s Gyre Expedition—a trailer for which can be found here.

While we’ve read a fair amount by now about the giant gyre of plastic spinning around in the North Pacific, some of that junk gets spit out of the cycle and washes ashore, as Carl reminds us. As this team moved from Seward to Kodiak, stopping off every day to observe and accumulate from a new beach, they did not lack for trash.

Safina wondered in his blog about the link between garbage and man. “Are trash and debris the new sirens of the sea that draw us—almost against our will—to the most remote and rocky shores? I and each of us on this vessel found the call impossible to resist.”

During the weeklong trip down the coast, Carl and his team were visited by locals who’d made beach cleanups a nearly full-time occupation.

  • Chris Pallaster, the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, reports that he and his organization have picked up roughly a million pounds of trash from 1,200 miles of Alaskan beaches in the past 20 years. Safina and his team spy everything from big chunks of plastic floated all the way from Japan since the Fukashima accident and a shipment of fly swatters apparently washed overboard.
  • Andy Schroeder’s Island Trails Network has organized beach cleanups across the Kodiak islands. He reports finding “more” of everything, both stuff casually tossed or blown into the sea from shorelines to commercial ship waste. He brings up the hard truth that most landfills don’t want the detritus that good-hearted beach pickers bring them. Recycling should be the answer, but there’s no nearby market.
  • Colleen Rankin has lived 80 miles from Kodiak Island by boat for the past 20 years. Garbage has sadly become her obsession, her mantra. What she sees more of than anything? Shoes. (My experience around the world says errant flip-flops are the biggest singular pollution, equaled by plastic water bottles.)

When I reached Safina at home on Long Island (after he had returned from his trip), I asked what most surprised him about the experience.

“The biggest surprise was that after 30 years of cataloging trash, the enviromentalists seem to know next to nothing about how household plastic and fishing gear gets into the ocean. When I asked, ‘Where do these fishing nets come from? Are they dumped or lost in storms?,’ no one could say,” he said. “No one seems to have tried to survey the Alaska fishing fleet on accidental gear losses or how they see incentives to dump or avoid dumping gear at sea. If you don’t know how it gets in, then you can’t help prevent it from getting in, it seems.”

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