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On Alaskan Beaches, More Foamed Plastic than Sea Foam

Posted On September 6, 2012 by

Debris in the wrack line shows a typical compilation of the foam and bottles that made up the majority of debris on East Beach. Credit: Ryan Ridge

Remote cleanups in Alaska are not your typical day at the beach; they’re difficult, physically exhausting and resource intensive. The possibility of debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan is adding to the already difficult task.

For the past six years, volunteers from Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) have spent hundreds of hours removing thousands of pounds of debris from the remote beaches at Gore Point, Alaska; recently though, cleanups on these beaches look very different. Twelve volunteers from GoAK and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) recently spent six days cleaning roughly two miles of the Gore Point coastline. The cleanup, which was partly funded by a grant from Ocean Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and made possible through volunteer labor and donated boats, collected over 90 cubic yards of debris weighing more than 4,000 pounds—enough to fill an entire school bus. Half of that was foamed plastic.

Large, diverse quantities of debris are the norm at typical beach cleanups, but at Gore Point, data forms were dominated by counts of foamed plastic pieces and foam insulation. Combined, foamed plastic accounted for more than one quarter of total debris weight and over half the volume (greater than 45 cubic yards)—an amount nearly four to six times the average amount of foam debris documented during GoAK’s past cleanups. On one particular beach, a 93-fold increase has been recorded in foamed plastic (by weight) between pre- and post-tsunami cleanups. Patrick Chandler, Special Programs Coordinator at CACS and Alaska State International Coastal Cleanup Coordinator described the severity of foam flotsam:

After spending a long day pulling debris from logs, digging it out of sand and hauling it into piles for pickup, the most disheartening thing to see is a section of beach so covered with small bits of foamed plastic that you know it’s hopeless to try to pick it all up.

The likely source of this foam is insulation from buildings that were destroyed by the March 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and foam buoys commonly used in nearshore aquaculture—conjectures confirmed by Japanese marine debris experts. Continue reading »