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From Purpose to Action: Building a Sustainable Future Together
Not Their Waste, But Still Their Problem:
How Alaska Is Managing an Influx of Global Marine Debris

A multi-stakeholder, community-based collaboration and an innovative model of plastic-waste recovery are helping to clean up the Gulf of Alaska.

The concept of “out of sight, out of mind” inadvertently produces a victim. In the case of ocean plastics and debris, one victim is Alaska’s coastline — along with the people who rely on its habitat and industries for their livelihood. Longer than all other US states combined, Alaska’s shoreline is dealt the largest concentration of marine debris in the country — most of which comes from elsewhere. Thanks to a combination of ocean currents and increasingly devastating natural disasters, marine debris from around the world piles up on Alaska’s shores.

This challenge is compounded by Alaska’s remote nature: The state accounts for over 16 percent of the total landmass of the US but has less than 0.5 percent of its roads.

Dealing with plastic pollution that congregates on distant shores requires international strategies. However, local actions can play an important and impactful role — especially when addressing Alaska’s land-deposit problem with urgency. More specifically, strong collaborations among local stakeholders from the public and private sectors can and should be pursued to not only advance solutions but accelerate them.

Managing collection of marine debris

Combine Alaska’s geographic inaccessibility with the tons of marine debris deposited each year, and the need for a strong network for collection becomes abundantly clear. Before we can consider what to do with the debris, we must be able to access it and collect it.

One way partnerships succeed is when they leverage the knowledge of all involved. That said, no one knows the ins and outs of Alaska’s coast better than the locals — many of whom have jumped into action to support their environment.

A collaboration including Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK), Pyxera Global and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste has tapped into Alaska’s communities to create a network of individuals dedicated to plastic debris and waste cleanup. The effort was brought about by Rivers Are Life — a project founded by Dow and produced by BeAlive that aims to bring awareness to the vitality of our river systems and convene organizations, businesses and individuals through community-based and multi-stakeholder initiatives. Input from local organizations and communities is especially critical to understanding the landscape, patterns and history of the issue — which, in turn, leads to more efficient and effective waste recovery.

With these collection processes in place, Dow is committed to taking the next step and transforming the waste by making it a valuable resource in a circular economy.

Tackling waste through infrastructure investments

Massive waste deposits to Alaska’s landfills present issues both from environmental and capacity perspectives. Many landfills in Alaska no longer accept marine debris as they were only designed to accommodate waste generated by the local population, rather than the globe.

As we look to overhaul our recycling infrastructure nationally, Alaska’s geography makes it a unique and challenging case — one where solutions can be tested in extreme circumstances for viability on the national stage.

FedEx provided shipment of the plastic waste collected by GoAK and its partners free of charge to the Center for Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC) — a recycling and processing facility in York, Pennsylvania funded by the Alliance. Throughout the project, FedEx shipped 5,000 pounds of collected waste and used data from its enterprise emissions reporting tool, FedEx Sustainability Insights, to measure the carbon impact of shipping the waste — which led CRDC to purchase five tons of carbon offsets from ACT Commodities.

This exciting project demonstrated the types of collaborations possible to collect, move and process Alaska’s marine debris in a way that can be scaled. But due to the carbon impact, “the ideal situation is not to be shipping plastic from Alaska to York, Pennsylvania,” said CRDC Global COO Ross Gibby. “Really, this is proof of concept.”

Following the success of this experiment, CRDC is now exploring options to open a facility in Alaska that can create this circular economy locally.

Generating new life for plastic waste

The work is not done once the plastic leaves remote areas of Alaska. Dow’s commitment extends to a circular model where plastic waste takes on new life as an endlessly valuable material — a challenge that can be conquered through innovation and technology with future-focused players.

Through CRDC, the plastic shipped from Alaska is converted into a new construction material called RESIN8.

As Donald Thomson, founder and CEO of CRDC Global, explains: “The debris we got from the beaches in Alaska … will be granulated, then mixed with the mineral additives that we utilize. It will then be heat-extruded and ground into the exact gradation, size and structure we’d normally look for in construction sand.”

Technology of this kind allows reclaimed materials to contribute to a circular economy for plastics. With the commitment of collaborators throughout the chain, plastic debris is repurposed to provide value, not simply end up in landfill.

Preventing plastic waste from the source

In addition to innovation in technology and infrastructure, education and advocacy are critical to nipping the problem at its source. Tackling the land-deposit issue and changing how the world views our waterways can help ensure less waste pollutes our shores to begin with.

Such education is a goal of Rivers Are Life, which cultivates awareness of the true force and fragility of our river systems and their interconnectivity to wildlife and ocean waste. The project’s newest film, “Keepers of the North,” spotlights the ways in which this innovative model of plastic-waste recovery and a band of committed partners are helping clean up the Gulf of Alaska. Both the film and Dow’s "Seek Together" podcast share how GoAK undertook the clean-up effort and how the collaborators came together to collect, ship and process the waste.

Realizing a circular future for plastics requires every stakeholder working together. That's why Dow is taking an innovative systems approach to identify the gaps, connect the best partners and disrupt how the world values, sources, transforms and monetizes plastic waste.

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