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July 24, 2015

Removing Marine Debris from Alaska’s Shoreline

In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit 230 miles northeast of Tokyo, causing a 30-foot tsunami, which claimed at least 16,000 lives and left thousands missing or injured. The area’s coastal communities and infrastructure was destroyed, resulting in about 5 million tons of debris from those communities entering the Pacific Ocean. Four years later, some of the debris from that disaster has found its way to the Alaskan shoreline.

Waste Management is part of a broad coalition of nonprofits, government entities and businesses working to clean up the debris and possibly recycle some of those materials. The project started in 2012, with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issuing an aerial coastline survey to determine the extent of the marine debris problem. The images that were captured from the survey were used to determine where to focus clean-up efforts. The Japanese government donated $5 million to the United States to support cleanup efforts in the five Pacific states that were impacted. Alaska has so far received $2.5 million.

The debris that lines the Alaskan shoreline includes building fragments, polystyrene foam, shipping containers, vessels, boats, jugs, fuel tanks, drums, lines and nets, household items and plastics. The task of cleaning up the items, some of which are in isolated areas where roads are in poor condition or non-existent, is a challenge. An added problem is that the volume of marine debris greatly exceeds what local Alaskan landfills are willing and capable of accepting—requiring it to be relocated. While the NGOs, the National Park Service and coastal landowners were primarily responsible for collecting the debris on the shoreline, support was needed to get these items out of Alaska.

The Waste Management Sustainability Services team, a group that continually looks for ways to advance sustainability efforts within companies and projects, is responsible for the logistics of getting the debris off the shoreline and screened for possible recycling.

The removal of the debris first involved packaging it into heavy duty bags, referred to as “super sacks,” which can weigh as much as 600 pounds. Helicopters were then used to transport the bags from these remote areas to centralized locations. From these areas, helicopters then loaded the bags onto a 300-foot long barge, where the debris is secured and separated.

On Thursday, July 16, the barge left Kodiak, Alaska carrying about 1,300 bags of debris. It will travel through the Gulf of Alaska and then south to British Columbia. On its journey, the barge will pick up additional debris along the United States and Canadian coastline (15 stops are expected) before dropping off the debris in Seattle for sorting and recycling. Any remaining debris will head by train to WM’s Columbia Ridge facility in Arlington, Oregon for final disposal. The barge is expected to reach Seattle in mid-August.