Visitors to the island of Hawaiʻi (the ‘Big Island’) find breathtaking volcanoes, lush tropical forests and an established local culture that is tougher to find in the archipelago’s more touristy areas.
Unfortunately, the island is also home to Kamilo (Kuh-mee-lo) Point — or as the locals refer to it, ‘rubbish beach’. Though it stretches a mere 500 meters, the beach is inundated with tons of plastic debris every year.
For centuries, Kamilo Point was a sacred place for native Hawaiians. Driftwood from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere throughout the Pacific Ocean washed up on its shores in abundant supply, and local carvers fashioned canoes out of the sturdy debris.
Today, the same oceanic forces bring plastic debris to Kamilo Point. The waste reaches Hawaii via the Giant Garbage Patch (also known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre), a soupy vortex of trash first discovered in 1988 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Though results considerably vary, scientists estimate the patch extends up to 3.8 million square miles – and most of the debris is manmade. A recent study indicated that the ratio of plastic to zooplankton within the patch was 46 to 1.
And the Hawaiian Archipelago – located roughly 500 miles southwest of the patch’s easternmost sector – lie directly in its path.
According to Dr. Hank Carson of the Marine Science Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, every island in the Hawaiian chain has ‘junk beaches’. Other notable pollution sites include Kuhuku Point on O’ahu and Kanapou Bay on Kaho’olawe, the smallest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
On the island of Hawaiʻi, the highest accumulation of plastic debris is found in a 10-mile stretch along the southern tip, said Dr. Carson. The area, which includes Kamilo Point and several miles of rocky coastline, receives roughly 16 metric tons of waste every year. He added that very little of this waste originates in Hawaii.
Carson explained that this level of pollution has greatly hurt the area’s wildlife. Many of the smaller animals, such as fish, die from ingesting toxic levels of plastic. Larger organisms such as birds and mammals, on the other hand, drown or suffocate when they become entangled in fishing nets and other large debris.
Then there are the sea turtles. He explained that sea turtles bury eggs in subterranean nests, and temperatures of the surrounding sand determine the sex of each embryo. Since plastic has notable heating properties, scientists have noted gender anomalies in many sea turtle populations.
But threatened wildlife is just one of the potential hazards posed by these materials. “There is a variety of chemical effects,” he noted. “Both things leaking out of the plastic and pollutants [that are] attracted to the surface of plastic materials.”
Plastic breaks down into pieces very easily, but it does not biodegrade. As a result, said Dr. Carson, the smaller plastic fragments are more worrisome than larger, bulkier items. At Kamilo Point, these fragments have essentially mixed into the sand. “If you go down there, it’s like a confetti of plastic particles,” he said.
He added that removing smaller materials is much more time- and labor-intensive than cleaning up large debris. But as Kamilo Point and the surrounding areas have been the focus of many large-scale clean-up efforts in recent years, project organizers are exploring ways to target debris of all sizes.
Megan Lamson is the debris project coordinator for Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund (HWF), a conservation-based non-profit organization based on the Big Island and Maui. HWF volunteers host a large-scale cleanup effort every 2-3 months, and she said many of these projects specifically target Kamilo Point.
The first cleanup, conducted at Kamilo in 2003, was comprised of 75 volunteers, two tractors and a flatbed pickup truck. Over the course of two days, more than 50 tons of rubbish was cleared from Kamilo Point.
Since the initial cleanup, Ms. Lamson estimates that more than 150 tons of plastic debris have been removed from the 10-mile area. “We’re doing a pretty good job but it’s an ongoing effort. We pull several thousand pounds of rubbish off the shoreline every time we go down there,” she said.
She said social media has provided a valuable means of volunteer outreach. “We’re constantly on Facebook, and that’s our biggest social media tie-in. Whenever there are news articles, beach cleanup events, awards or something in the media that’s relevant to marine debris or cutting back on single-use plastic, we’ll throw something about it on our personal pages [and the HWF site],” she said.
Though her organization also recently began using Twitter, Ms. Lamson added that tweeting is not yet the most effective way to communicate with other Hawaiian residents. “[Twitter] is not as common in Hawaii as it is on the mainland,” she said. “We’re using what we can, and I think that we’ve been successful.”
In 2012, HWF’s online efforts literally paid off, thanks to a social media campaign sponsored by Subaru Hawaii. The “Share the Love” contest asked SH’s Facebook visitors to vote on their favorite non-profit organization. The auto dealer donated $250 from every automobile sold in November and December 2011, eventually raising more than $25,000 to be split among the winners of the contest.
HWF earned the most votes (a whopping 45 percent), and received a check valued at $11,700 to be split between the Hawai’i and Maui projects. Ms. Lamson said this contest taught her organization a valuable lesson about the power of social media.
“We were astounded by the way it took off,” she said. “It was a really good learning experience for us to realize how much social media can be used to spread the word. It really just reinforced to us that [social media] is something that we should be focusing time and energy into.”
She added that social media is valuable not only as an effective way to reach young people, but also as a ‘green’ form of communication.
Over the years, Ms. Lamson has coordinated more than 30 volunteer projects with local residents, youth groups, college students and local rotary clubs, as well as organizations like Keep the Hawaiian Islands Beautiful and Surfrider Foundation Hilo Chapter. She says firsthand involvement in the cleanup effort remains the most effective educational tool.
“Everyone takes home a different message, but hopefully they’re making shifts in their daily lifestyles according to what they’re seeing.”
In fact, Ms. Lamson believes a “lifestyle shift” is needed on a global level. The issue of marine pollution requires all citizens not only dispose of plastic products differently, but also use them far less frequently.
“We think we’re recycling things and then they are out of sight, out of mind — you throw something away you don’t think about it again,” she said. “But the impact on the greater society as a whole, and where that garbage is going, is an international problem. We need to start thinking about it and working together for creative, collaborative solutions. Not just picking up rubbish from the beach, but limiting the amount of rubbish we’re creating as individuals.”
One of these solutions is Nets-to-Energy, spearheaded by NOAA’a Marine Debris Program with partners including Matson Navigation Company and Schnitzer Steel. This innovative program creates energy from derelict fishing nets, which comprise roughly two-thirds of the debris (by weight) removed by HWF and volunteers from the Kamilo area.
Net bundles are collected by local groups like HWF, Surfrider Foundation Kaua’i and the fishermen at Pier 38 in Oahu. The material is stored at the county transfer station, in eco-friendly containers donated by Matson. When a container is full, the material is chopped up and incinerated to create household electricity.
“Because these nets are made of plastic, they burn really well and are able to create a lot of household electricity,” said Ms. Lamson, who estimated that more than 40 households are powered for a year by 100 tons (or roughly 14 containers) of fishing net material.
But she noted that much of the trash currently recovered from the shoreline is non-recyclable, including the microplastic fragments.
“Trash doesn’t fall from the sky, it falls from our hands,” she said. “To actually curb this problem and stop it at the source, we’re going to need everyone to be on board.”
For more information about clean-up projects in the Kamilo Beach area, please visit Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund online.