One by one, people overturned massive, white, heavy-duty bags at the Port of Anchorage Saturday afternoon, spilling out their contents: a hodgepodge of debris that had found its way into the ocean, eventually landing on Alaska's remote coastlines.
There were shoes alongside buoys and styrofoam. There was a collection of blue aluminum water bottles, apparently dumped into the ocean in a container spill, as well as metal containers marked with Japanese writing, likely debris from the deadly 2011 tsunami there.
There were tangled fishing nets, fuel cans and piles and piles of plastic bottles.
"I think the biggest thing that hit me today was how wasteful we are with water bottles," said Cathy Miller, a 67-year-old volunteer who helped sort through the tons of trash, tossing plastics into bins so they could be recycled.
Miller was one of a group of volunteers Saturday who helped Gulf of Alaska Keeper sort through the more than 200 tons of trash its workers picked up this summer from uninhabited Montague Island in Prince William Sound and Kayak Island in the Gulf. The nonprofit organization hires seasonal workers for large-scale cleanup operations, sending them to remote Alaska shores to collect the marine debris that wedges itself into the landscape, threatening wildlife.
This summer, the team of about 10 spent several weeks cleaning 10 miles of remote shoreline. Scott Groves, one of the seasonal employees for Gulf of Alaska Keeper, said it's hard to imagine just how much trash has washed onto Alaska, until you see it for yourself.
"It's mind-blowing," Groves said. "It's good to physically get in there and get a lot of that stuff off the coast. A lot of people aren't aware of the situation."
Chris Pallister, Gulf of Alaska Keeper president, said his team spent about a month on Montague and nearly three weeks on the tinier Kayak this summer, living in a boat anchored in the calmer waters of the inner coastline and then flying by helicopter each morning to the outer shorelines.
They spent their days collecting trash. Mostly, they picked up plastic bottles, fishing nets, buoys, ropes and styrofoam. "That's 99 percent of what we find," Groves said.
"There are literally millions of bottles of every kind you can imagine," Pallister said. He estimates the team removed between 4,000 and 5,000 buoys and hundreds of thousands of plastic, beverage bottles.
Aside from the run-of-the-mill trash that plagues Alaska's shorelines, debris from the 2011 tsunami also continues to wash onto the state's coasts, Pallister said. Gulf of Alaska Keeper workers have found highway markers with Japanese writing and heavy, dense plastic stakes used in Japan as property markers, he said.
The trash and debris found this summer was stuffed into about 1,200 heavy-duty bags that were eventually airlifted to a barge and taken to the Port of Anchorage, where volunteers signed up to help separate what can be recycled and what cannot. Altogether, there was about 2,500 cubic yards of debris to be sifted through, Pallister said.
"It's just a massive amount of garbage," he said.
And the operation to collect the garbage is costly, but it's the safest and most efficient way Gulf of Alaska Keeper has found to get the debris out of the islands, Pallister said. This year the nonprofit received about $900,000 from the state, a share of the $5 million Japan provided to the U. S. for tsunami cleanup. Pallister estimated about 50 percent of the debris is from the tsunami, but it's impossible to know for sure.
This summer, it took the team more than 40 days to clean just 10 miles of coast. In part, that's because of the difficult terrain and large amounts of debris, Pallister said.
In 2013, the state Department of Environmental Conservation named Montague and Kayak islands as two of the nine areas of the highest priority to clean up, based on debris density, impact and feasibility.
Because of patterns in wind and water currents, the islands — and Alaska overall — receive a lot of ocean trash, said Peter Murphy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's regional coordinator for Alaska.
"You see beaches that you think should be pristine in remote locations and instead, they have a lot of debris," Murphy said. "This is a big problem and we can all take a part in fixing it."
Pallister has been in the business of cleaning up Alaska's shorelines for more than a decade, concerned about the huge amounts of marine debris smothering the Sound and Gulf coasts. The organization started on small cleanup projects with volunteers and then grew into a nonprofit that uses a barge and helicopters to conduct large-scale cleanup.
"It's just not going to make a dent unless we go at it professionally like this," Pallister said.
Pallister said Gulf of Alaska Keeper is the largest sustained, shoreline cleanup operation in Alaska, and perhaps, the world. He estimates his team has cleaned more than 1,500 miles of coastline during the summers.
During the the winter, Pallister said he's mostly "chasing money" and writing grants. Pallister said he worries about the future of coastal cleanup, with the $5 million from the Japanese government nearly depleted and Alaska facing a lean state budget.
"It's pretty bleak right now," Pallister said. He said he will focus this winter on corporation and foundation grants. It's important to clean the beaches before the styrofoam disintegrates or the debris gets swept back into the water. "What's the alternative," he said. "Let it build up forever and leave this huge mess for future generations to deal with?"
As Miller sorted through the marine debris with her sister Saturday, she praised the cleanup effort by Gulf of Alaska Keeper. She said she wants future generations to go out to the Sound and she wants the land to look as beautiful as it does now.
For the first time this summer, some of the debris collected by Gulf of Alaska Keeper may have a second life as something else. The nonprofit has partnered with Parley for the Oceans, a New York-based organization, to take the recyclable debris to their partners so it be remade into new products Pallister said.
"It's pretty exciting, actually," he said. "Probably 99 percent of what we brought in before has gone right into the landfill somewhere so, this is a huge change and it looks to me like we're going to get 70 to 80 percent of this recycled."
Gulf of Alaska Keeper is still looking for volunteers to help sort through the marine debris next week. Those interested can contact the company at email@example.com.