At least 40% of all plastic produced is designed for single-use packaging, such as water bottles. Less than 10% of all single-use plastics ever get recycled. Here is was Chris Pallister and his team are doing about it.

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man infront of body of water on boat
Credit: Patty Zwollo

In the late 1990s, Chris Pallister flew along with a bush pilot buddy to check out the rugged beauty of the remote outer beaches of the Gulf of Alaska. But what he saw was distressing. “There was so much garbage,” he recalls. “It was debris from commercial fishing, plastic drinking bottles, buoys and massive piles of logs. I saw garbage lining the beach 100 yards deep.” Not only was the coastline unsightly, he realized that it also was unsafe. “I knew all that plastic was in danger of degrading and being ingested by wildlife.”

What He Did

Pallister founded the nonprofit Gulf of Alaska Keeper in 2006 to clean up the waters of his home state. From May to September (inclement weather the rest of the year halts their work), around a dozen crew members visit remote Alaskan beaches—some of which can be accessed only by helicopter—where they remove mountains of garbage, from plastic flip-flops and car tires to huge fishing nets and lines. “It’s rough, dangerous work,” Pallister says. “We’ve had challenges from brown bears and injuries that required medevac evacuations.” An already-serious environmental situation was compounded by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, which sent tons of debris across the Pacific to Alas- kan beaches. “It’s estimated that 80%of the debris from that disaster ended up here, and it’s still all over our shorelines,” he says. And local wildlife habitually chew or eat this trash: “Not only do we find chewed-up plastic items, we find their scat with plastic particles in it.”

Why It's Cool

Gulf of Alaska Keeper has removed more than 3 million pounds of trash from over 1,500 miles of coast to date. As a result, miles of salmon spawning streams are now unblocked. The habitats of countless marine species, including orcas and threatened harbor seals, have been restored. Sea and coastal bird species as well as black and brown bears, coyotes and other critters that feed, breed and nest along these shorelines can now do so safely. Janna Stewart, former tsunami marine debris coordinator for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, praises Pallister’s commitment to protecting coastal habitats: “It’s a monumental job and Chris is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met."

EatingWell, October 2020