A Trashy Anniversary

To celebrate thirty-one years of marriage my husband and I sort trash. Not your average clean-out-the-garage trash, but marine debris. Unimaginable junk tossed or lost at sea.

Most couples wouldn’t think of celebrating their anniversary elbow deep in slime, ripped up shoes, and razor sharp shards of plastic. But this is one small way we can help care for the ocean, a passion we’ve shared since we spent our honeymoon in a cabin on the shores of Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska.

We are joined by some thirty other volunteers at the Port of Anchorage on this hot, dusty July day. Over a hundred other volunteers—ranging in age from seven to seventy—have been sorting trash over the past three days.

After a ten-minute orientation from the project coordinator we start pitching objects into separate bins:  clear plastic bottles;  hard plastics;  nets and ropes; big fishing buoys; and anything aluminum. Styrofoam cannot be recycled so it goes into large green trash bags. This includes large chunks of white crumbly stuff as well as hundreds of small oblong floats from fishing nets. In a matter of minutes, the white tee-shirts we were given to wear over our clothes are streaked with brown filth.

Each piece of trash has a story of how it wound up on an Alaskan beach—the 2011 Japanese tsunami, a marine container dumped overboard in a monster storm, careless fisherman, sunken ships, or entire countries that dump their trash into the ocean. But I don’t have time to dwell on these stories. The forklift lowers two more Volkswagen-sized white bags onto the ground. People untie each one, pull out bulging bags of beach trash, and lug them over to our massive wooden sorting table.

As new volunteers arrive, veterans train them. If an object goes into the wrong bin, someone retrieves it and puts it in the right place. We become a well-greased (literally) assembly line.

On our lunch break, I chat with a young man who spent several weeks collecting this trash on the beaches of Montague Island in Prince William Sound and Kayak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. He worked for a non-profit called Gulf of Alaska Keeper which cleans different Alaskan beaches each summer. Gathering the trash at such remote sites means living on a boat for forty days, commuting by helicopter to the clean-up sites, then back again at night—grueling physical work in all kinds of weather.

“How much trash is left out there?” I ask.

“We covered about ten miles,” he said. “And there were forty miles left.”

As I go back to sorting, I’m torn between despair and hope. So much waste hauled away. So much left. So many hands willing to help; so many more needed. How do we stop the flow of garbage into our oceans? I don’t have an easy answer, but as I look at the people around me, I choose to have hope. We can do something.

The forklift lowers the last white bag onto the ground. We distribute the last pieces of broken and smashed garbage into the appropriate containers. People begin raking the tiny pieces of plastic left on the ground and tossing buoys into a large container van for shipment with the rest of the recyclables to Seattle and California where they will be turned into clothing, shoes, cloth, and other objects.

Two hundred tons of trash picked up this summer. Trash that will not poison fish or entrap whales. It’s a small success, but worth celebrating—after a shower—with a dinner of fresh Alaskan halibut and a glass of wine. Not a bad way to spend an anniversary.