A study of Southcentral Alaska bodies of water found microplastics in 100% of locations tested, including sites on the Kenai Peninsula, according to a report released last month.
The Alaska Environment Research and Policy Center released the report on Jan. 25. AERPC State Director Dyani Chapman and University of Alaska Southeast Sea Grant Fellow Joi Gross, who conducted the study, found microplastics in 100% of their samples taken from all 39 Southcentral Alaska water bodies tested between June and September 2023.
“Alaska has international renown for its pristine environment and is relatively geographically isolated from other watersheds, so it’s especially disappointing to find microplastics in every sample we took,” Gross was quoted as saying in a Jan. 25 press release.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service as extremely small pieces of plastic debris measuring less than 5 millimeters in length that come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces.
According to Chapman and Gross’s report, a “large share” of the plastic debris present in the environment consists of pieces measuring less than 5 mm, or 0.2 inches.
The problem with plastic pollution is that it doesn’t simply break down or biodegrade like other types of waste that are animal- or plant-based.
“Neither bacteria nor fungi have much success breaking (plastics) down into their basic components,” the report states. “Over time, friction and heat will break the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, but they’ll still be plastic and unable to nourish new life for a very long time.”
Microplastics have been found not only in the environment, but also in human and animal bodies, thus threatening both wildlife and public health. Toxic chemicals present in and attracted by plastics in the environment can bioaccumulate through the food chain, the report states. Microplastics mistaken as food by wildlife can lead to internal lacerations and digestive problems including starvation, according to the release. When microplastics are ingested by humans, they can cause cancer, endocrine disruption and reproductive disorders.
“Small pieces of plastic can be mistaken for food by salmon and other wildlife, causing injury or even death. Microplastics can also attract and accumulate pollutants like DDT, PCBs, and heavy metals. They’re small enough to get into our bodies via food, water or even air, and have been found in human blood, lungs, and other organs,” Gross said in the release. “For the sake of our drinking water, fisheries and wildlife, we need to reduce plastic pollution both here in Alaska and globally.”
Findings on the Kenai Peninsula
During their study, Chapman and Gross took samples from 39 water locations including rivers, lakes, beaches and kitchen taps, from the lower Kenai Peninsula up through Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, the press release states.
The report reveals that they looked for four types of microplastic pollution in their samples. These included fibers, primarily from clothing, textiles and fishing line; film, primarily from bags and flexible plastic packaging; fragments, primarily from harder plastics or plastic feedstock; and beads, primarily from facial scrubs and other cosmetic products.
Chapman and Gross noted that microfibers were “by far the most prevalent” microplastic, found in 100% of taken samples. Plastic fragments and films were present in 20.5% and 33.3% of samples, respectively.
“Our results show that popular fishing and recreation spots including Kenai Lake and Tern Lake have some of the highest concentrations of microplastics, and many of the pieces appear to be pieces of fishing line,” the report states. “On the other hand, microplastic concentrations are not consistently lower in more rural locations, indicating some non-local sources.”
The microplastics discovered in Kenai Peninsula waterways, as listed in the report, are as follows:
Bridge Creek Reservoir: fibers, films
Beluga Lake: fibers, films
Bishop’s Beach: fibers, fragments
Anchor River: fibers
Ninilchik River: fibers, films
Kenai River: fibers
Kenai Lake: fibers, films
Sports Lake: fibers, fragments
Resurrection River: fibers, fragments
Resurrection Bay: fibers
Seward Lagoon: fibers
Second Lake: fibers
Bear Lake: fibers
Cooper Creek: fibers
Tern Lake: fibers, films
Results from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley are given in the full report.
A statewide, and global, problem
While the majority of Alaska’s marine pollution comes from outside Alaska, Chapman and Gross say that “Alaska does have plenty of homegrown plastic pollution,” primarily caused by litter and lost fishing gear. The problem is exacerbated, they say, by “poor recycling infrastructure” in the state, citing that only 30% of households in Anchorage have curbside recycling. It also doesn’t help that very few plastics are eligible for recycling in Alaska. For example, the Homer Monofill/Transfer Facility recycle tent only accepts PETE #1 plastic twist top containers and HDPE #2 plastics.
In the report, Chapman and Gross note that “Alaskans and tourists are almost certainly responsible for some of the microplastic pollution, but distribution patterns indicate that some of the microplastic pollution is being swept in from other places as well.”
However, it remains that the “scope of plastic pollution in Southcentral Alaska is extensive,” they wrote in the report. They urge leaders at the federal, state, local and corporate levels to implement policies to address the “environmental and waste crisis caused by our overreliance on plastics.”
“This report underscores that our relative isolation has not protected Alaska from microplastic pollution. We collected just three liters of water from the sources we tested, and we found microplastics in every single sample — when you multiply it out, we’ve got a real problem. And the plastic tap is still on, pouring more in every day,” Chapman wrote in the release.
Being better stewards
“Given how widespread the threat of plastic and microplastic pollution is, there is no silver bullet solution to address this pervasive problem,” Chapman and Gross wrote in their report. “Fortunately, we know it’s possible.”
Among their recommendations to combat the problem of widespread plastic waste, Chapman and Gross advocate for the Alaska Legislature passing statewide producer responsibility laws “as quickly as possible,” calling producer responsibility “a mechanism to shift the costs and management of postconsumer waste from local governments and consumers onto producers themselves.” Implementing producer responsibility policies would require plastic producers to design, manage and finance waste and recycling programs, the report says.
“When manufacturers are responsible for end of life during design, they can do things like choose actually recyclable materials, choose compostable options, or entirely eliminate a plastic component,” Chapman and Gross wrote.
In addition to the Alaska Legislature taking actions, the coauthors also advocate for measures passed at the federal level to make producer responsibility programs more widespread and “shift the burden onto those who are creating the pollution.”
In their report, Chapman and Gross also present ideas for reducing plastic pollution by tackling fast fashion, choosing natural fibers, phasing out single-use plastics, halting policies that promote increased manufacture and incineration of plastic, supporting reuse and reusable items, supporting repair over replacement of items, improving sport fishing gear, minimizing the loss of commercial fishing gear, and funding efforts and supporting programs for marine debris cleanup.
Many of these suggestions include steps that can be taken at legislative (state and federal), municipal and individual levels. For example, community members can repair clothing or personal items to wear and use them for longer periods of time, rather than simply replacing them; choose products made from natural materials and fibers that will safely decompose or biodegrade; transition from single-use plastics or plastic bags to reusable items, bags and containers; utilize sport fishing line and gear not made from plastics and reducing lost plastic gear; participating in cleanup and conservation efforts such as those provided by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer; and supporting conservation policies by state and federal legislatures, like the Don Young Veterans Advancing Conservation Act introduced to Congress last year.
“There are a lot of steps we need to take to protect our wildlife and health from plastic pollution, but to start, we need to move away from single use plastics. Nothing we use for a few minutes should be able to pollute our environment for hundreds of years,” Chapman said in the press release.