Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Oceans of Trash, Mountains of Trash

I’ve written here about planting little acorns – doing some small volunteer activity – and having its impact become a great oak. But it works in reverse, too: little bits of human activity that become a huge, disgusting problem. I’m talking about trash, and I’m talking about plastic bottles.

Today, in my continuing quest for New Things to get involved in, I sorted through mountains of marine debris washed ashore on the coastline of Alaska. Not just mountains – Everests of marine debris. Oceans of marine debris. It was more shit in one place than I’ve ever seen. And most of that was plastic.

At least I got to see it in a pile at the Anchorage port and not on a shoreline I’d kayaked to, hoping for wilderness.

You just can’t imagine the hugeness of the whole Gulf of Alaska Keeper enterprise. There were enormous white bags brought to us on forklifts, bags so big that three people looped their shoulders through handles to carry them to waiting containers or dumpsters. Hunks of Styrofoam so big that no bag could hold them. Bag after bag after bag dumped out for the volunteer sorters.
We were sorting because this year Parley for the Oceans was arranging for some of the plastics to be recycled. Otherwise, that mountain of trash would go into the landfill. So the job for sorters was to separate out the hard plastic (HDPE #2) from the soda and water bottles (PETE #1). We could also put rope and net in a pile to be reused, buoys in another container, plastic pipes for something else. The Styrofoam and other junk were just trash.
Whenever stories appear about clean-ups, they always talk about the unique and interesting things people find. That’s like talking about the needle in the haystack. The real horror is that most trash is everyday, boring things that we use all the time – that we use and toss and transform into enormous piles of garbage. I cannot describe how many laundry baskets were in the pile, how many buckets and bins, coolers and bottles. And bottles. And more bottles.

Why today was a great day:

  1. One of the women said this enormous mountain of trash came from only one little tiny corner of the world. The rest is still out there. Yikes, we’re worse than the Cuddy Park geese in fouling our own nest with shit! Like that old proverb about saving one starfish (because it mattered to that one starfish), I am really gratified about these bags and bags of now-recycled trash. I even brought a buoy home because my friend Sunnie needed a buoy. One buoy restored to usefulness!
  2. On a weekday morning, almost all of us were retired women. Look at us: trying to clean up the world for the next generation! We were essentially set loose, and we are really, really good at teamwork: we started new collection baskets, emptied them into the giant white bags. Decided when something was too big and went straight into the dumpsters, when the sorting table needed to be resupplied with bags and piles, where deflated buoys went. We had just two instructions – what was #1 and what was #2 – and the rest was about our doing what needed to be done. My friend Connie marveled at how satisfying it was to volunteer that way, to fluidly self-manage.
  3. It is really filthy. My hair feels like it’s been hair sprayed; my sneakers are wet and gray. Connie rolled now-empty giant white bags for storage, and she is REALLY filthy. Lifting huge bags, rolling buoys to their container, flinging things into bins – getting filthy is hard-won fun; it makes showers really rewarding.

  4. Me? I’m a recycling maniac. I have been known to reach into public trashcans to retrieve recyclables. Putting #1s and #2s in the right spot is like re-aligning the order of the universe, getting all those ducks in a row. (Tim says I’m always aiming for duck nirvana.) Getting in the zone of sorting is like berry-picking: after a while, your world is only the object in front of you and its rightful place in the bucket. You can’t stop because there’s always more.
And that’s the sad thing. There is always more.

So what can we do? We can give up single-use plastic. We can use personal water bottles and stop buying plastic water bottles for meetings and conferences and car rides. And if you want a fun, engaging, meaningful, dirty, hard work kind of day, they need volunteers every day between July 19-26: email


  1. I love this captures the day, and need to stop buying plastic, perfectly!!

  2. This is just in line with my July urge to educate NYC about composting. I am trying to get my building management to join the NYC organic waste recycling pilot program for weekly organics pickup and I'm telling anyone who will listen about places to drop off their compost. Some ridiculous percentage of landfill waste is actually compostable. Another large portion had got to be plastic bottles. I went to a fancy spin class last week and I was horrified that these people who spin once or twice every week pick up one or two free plastic water bottles to bring into class. It hurts that they don't bring a reusable bottle. Anyway, thanks for sharing this! Keep up the good work.

  3. Thank you for reminding us to do the right thing. Thank you for making a difference.


Sharing Button