Katrina Peavey and other volunteers from Ocean Plastics Recovery Project

Katrina Peavey, foreground, and other volunteers from Ocean Plastics Recovery Project in Kodiak pose with a portion of the 11,587 pounds of marine debris they collected from outer islands around Afognak during one week in September. The amount of debris collected was about the size of a minke whale. Photo courtesy of Katrina Peavey

Keeping plastics out of Alaska’s waterways and off of its beautiful beaches can begin with each person’s decision to use and dispose of plastic mindfully, as well as choose alternatives to single-use plastic. That’s the message that Katrina Peavey of Craig is passionate about relaying to residents of her community and beyond.

 In January, Peavey initiated a series of near-monthly community clean-up events in Craig. The City of Craig donates bright, yellow ALPAR (Alaskans for Litter Prevention and Recycling) bags for these events, and disposes of the filled bags that are returned that same day. Craig Recreation Director Victoria Merritt also helped Peavey to organize the clean-up days.

“The idea is to gather at least one bag of trash in your neighborhood in order to help keep our community clean,” Peavey said in recent phone interview.

Between human activity, high-wind storms, and bears dragging bags of rubbish into the woods, there seems to be a never-ending supply of trash to pick up. Inevitably, trash left on the ground has the potential to end up on beaches and in the waters, harming wildlife and the environment and detracting from Alaska’s natural beauty, she said.

Peavey moved back to Alaska in 2020 to be nearer to family, after living in London for nearly 10 years. She wanted to do something for the community and help address the marine debris problem, but COVID made that “tricky,” she said.

An outdoor clean-up, however, met both needs.

Peavey grew up in Craig, where she’d spend the summers commercial fishing and working on a marine debris project that was started in 2009 by her mother, Kathy Peavey, and a crew of friends and volunteers. That project resulted in over 160,000 pounds of nets, lines and plastics being cleaned off remote coastal shores. The project was funded by several organizations over the years, including the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation, Alaska Marine Stewardship Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sitka Sound Science Center and the Alaska Brewing Company.

“We all love our home here in Southeast and want to help protect it for generations to come,” Katrina said.

They have cleaned some beaches, only to go back in a year or more time and find them “inundated” in plastic again.

“It’s just hard to see these remote beaches covered with plastic from all over the world,” she added.

The Craig Community Clean-ups have been her way to raise awareness. She finds it “heartwarming” that volunteers — as many as 30 for one event — come out to help, and sometimes continue to pick up plastic and trash on their own wherever and whenever they can. The level of participation is usually contingent on the weather, although some will venture out rain or shine, she said.

Many communities center clean-up operations around April 22, Earth Day. Peavey organized the more frequent clean-ups in the hope that, seeing the problem more often, people would come up with different, creative ideas to address it.  

“How can we find solutions to ensure that our environment is free of single-use plastic and pollutants that directly affect the health of marine and wildlife?” she asks.

Peavey shared that 90% of the world’s seabirds and half of the world’s sea turtles have been found with plastic in their gut, and a single-use plastic water bottle can last for 450 years. The nonprofit Oceanic Society has found there is enough plastic entering the ocean each year to cover every foot of coastline on the planet, and that might triple by 2040, she said.

Despite a growing awareness, the plastic problem grows as well, she said. While a long-term solution is needed, individuals can take small steps to reduce their plastic footprint.

For an idea of what kinds of plastic is washing up on beaches, Peavey said start by looking in your bathroom. It’s such a large problem that it helps by breaking it down and focusing on one room at a time, and a lot of what they find on the beaches originates in the bathroom. Single-use dental flossers are a frequent find, as are shampoo and body wash bottles, plastic tampon applicators and toothbrushes. Other items like water bottles, lighters, plastic forks, spoons and knives, and plastic coffee cup lids are also common.

Marine debris also includes derelict fishing gear, including lines, nets, floats and buoys.

In September, Peavey traveled to Kodiak and was part of a crew that gathered nearly six tons of marine debris from outer islands around Afognak. She worked with Ocean Plastics Recovery Project, a public benefits corporation established in Oregon with cleanup operations based out of Kodiak, according to the website oceanplasticsrecovery.com. Andy Schroeder and Scott Farling are its co-founders.

Schroeder is also executive director for Island Trails Network, whose mission includes stewardship of over 1,500 miles of coastline in the Kodiak Archipelago.

Peavey was part of team of eight volunteers, four crew and two ship crew, who all lived aboard the motor vessel Island C for a week. They would skiff out to a nearby island each day, and bring back their debris in the evening. The group included people from all walks of life, including teachers, a business owner, Coast Guard members, and scientists. Hana Reyes co-led the group of volunteers with Peavey, who said the amount of debris collected — 11,587 pounds — amounted to the size of a minke whale.

All of the trash they collected will be sent to Ocean Plastics Recovery’s research and processing operation in Portland, Oregon, to be studied and upcycled, she said.

The issue of marine debris and plastics is an overwhelming one, but there are many dedicated people working together toward a solution, on local, state and national levels, Peavey said. There are some very exciting plastic alternatives being developed out of renewable materials like cellulose and mushrooms, she added.

 But it will take policy and community advocacy to find a longer-term solution. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan has been active in sponsoring legislation to combat marine debris on a national and global basis, beginning with the 2018 Save our Seas Act, and followed up with Save our Seas 2.0 Act, signed into law in 2020.

“As I often say, this is one environmental challenge that is solvable…,” Sullivan said in an earlier press release.

The newest law has three main components: Strengthening the country’s domestic response to marine debris, enhancing global efforts to combat the issue, and improving domestic infrastructure aimed at prevention through grant-funded studies of waste management and mitigation, according to information provided by Sullivan’s Washington office.

Within these, it establishes the Marine Debris Foundation, an independent nonprofit that augments the efforts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to assess, prevent, reduce and remove marine debris. The foundation may provide additional resources to Alaskan communities in collaborative clean-up efforts, and will award a Genius Prize for the most innovative projects that prevent and reduce plastic waste.

The legislation also directs the Environmental Protection Agency to establish a national recycling strategy, and create grant programs and initiatives to reduce plastics in water, to prevent waste from entering waters, and to discourage littering overall.

Through the act, the U.S. will continue its role as a global leader in reducing marine debris, increase assistance to other countries in combatting marine debris and improving plastic and other waste management systems, and begin efforts to negotiate an international treaty on ocean plastic waste, according to the provided information.

Ongoing research will study the U.S. role in global plastic waste, innovative uses for plastic waste, sources and impacts of derelict fishing gear and effectiveness of various recycling strategies.

“This bill will be particularly important for Alaska, a state that disproportionately experiences the impact of ocean debris with our thousands of miles of coastline,” Sullivan said in the press release.

In late November, Peavey is moving to Anchorage to serve as Audubon Alaska’s communications manager. She will continue to share the message of how Alaskans can take better care of their beaches and waters.

  “All of our actions have a ripple effect and by working together we can have a positive impact that helps protect and preserve our shared home,” she said.