Vile Treasure Hunt

One person's trash is another's cleanup on Juneau beaches

Posted: Tuesday, August 05, 2008

At first glance, the Lincoln Island beach appeared unmarred - pebbles, kelp, brush, washed-up logs and the forest behind it. The volunteers had come to clean up the trash, but what if there wasn't any?

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Courtesy Of Mihael Blikshteyn
Courtesy Of Mihael Blikshteyn

And then that rust-colored mass turned out not to be kelp, but actual rust: a boat engine.

On the beach, what appeared to be driftwood turned out to be the long-weatherbeaten side of a boat, with a rail still hanging off. This was no pristine beach. It was covered with shipwreck and miscellaneous other trash.

"Once you start seeing it, it's everywhere," said Bob King of the Marine Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit organized by commercial fishing groups that cleans up beaches around the state.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature added 14 Juneau-area islands to the Alaska Marine Park System. On Saturday, a few of those islands got some attention from volunteers from Turning the Tides, a local nonprofit that works on cleaning up marine debris.

Scrambling around the rocky beach, I was dismayed to learn how desensitized to the stuff I was. Seeing a Super Big Gulp cup on the ground triggered no instinct to relieve the landscape of it. After all, those things are a native species in suburban sprawl. Seeing trash as trash would require a little mental retraining.

So I began playing a game in my head: Which of these things does not belong?

Belongs: pebbles, kelp, rough-skinned newt.

Does not belong: Aqua Net hairspray, fishing net, PVC pipe, full ammonia bottles, empty Clorox bottles, laundry baskets, bicycle tires, truck tires, airplane tires, children's toys, paddle, hinges, tampons, cans, bags, erosion-control blanket, wood stove parts, bits of twine, bits of plastic, bullets, Alaskan Amber, buckets galore, Juneau Empire newspaper mailbox. The truck bed liner pretty clearly does not belong.

Styrofoam, even that which has broken down into tiny bits and worked itself into the soil near the beach, does not belong. You may find such things in the bellies of creatures who don't know that, though. It's hard to know how trash affects animals' survival, but in one study, researchers reported finding plastic pellets in the gullets of every gull they checked.

The volunteers crowed over their hauls as they brought them onto the Weather Permitting, the boat donated for the day and operated by Capt. Greg Brown of Juneau.

King weighed each bag as it came in. The trash-pickers exchanged notes on their favorite finds and passed reward chocolate around with grubby paws.

"This is very typical for around here," said King, running down the list. "Most of it comes from close to home."

The orange polyethylene fishing net that had buried itself under a log had a certain charm but did not belong. It took four people to drag it out.

King later determined it was a trawling net for catching groundfish. It's typical of what he sees in the Pribilofs, but here it surprised him a little. The trawl fishery has been closed here since 1995.

"Although after a couple years in this business, nothing really surprises me about the behavior of trash," King said. "It gets anywhere. It behaves in rather strange ways."

For instance, volunteers noted the way it sorts itself out on beaches. On Lincoln, they found a heavy bucket concentration. Another area was deemed rich in tires.

On Alaska beaches more exposed to ocean currents and fishing traffic, fishing nets are common.

"When we go out in the Aleutians or the Pribilofs, it's all fishing nets. Fishing nets, buoys, weights, line. It's 99 percent fishing gear by weight," King said.

The Marine Conservation Alliance sends the synthetic nets to Washington state, where they're melted down and made into something useful again. The organization spends a lot of time cleaning up those beaches, which also have a lot more junk on them than sheltered islands such as Shelter. Last year, the organization collected 175 metric tons of trash, most from the Arctic Yukon and the Gulf of Alaska.

"It's a huge problem statewide," King said.

He estimated the new state parks, which haven't been cleaned in recent memory, had perhaps 100 kilograms for every kilometer of beach. For comparison, Pribilof beaches may get 300 kilograms per kilometer each year.

The Juneau beaches are not only much cleaner but much cheaper to clean, because they're close. The Marine Conservation Alliance estimated last year's statewide marine debris cleanups cost about $2.51 per pound to clean up.

Saturday's two-boat cleanup was much closer to the landfill, was volunteer-driven, and had the city's blessing to dump free of charge. So the Weather Permitting party's efforts came in around 95 cents per pound - even with an extra boat trip to drop off a volunteer who was injured.

Cleaning up would be cheaper, though, if people paid more attention to their trash, said Carol Anderson of Turning the Tides, who organized the trash party.

"This is the end of the line," Anderson said. "We need to stop producing the trash and stop littering. First refuse - then reduce, reuse, recycle."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or e-mail

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