Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Midway (Sat., 1/24/2009): Dirty Jobs, Aloha Style – w/video
by -- January 25th, 2009

Today we experienced how Midway, a remote Pacific island, handles recyclables and beach debris.

Things operate a little differently here, since there is limited land for fill and conservation is at the forefront of all decisions. Yet we can look at the Midway microcosm as a paradigm for the rest of the world.  Most of the trash here gets incinerated, and a landfill is used only when the incinerator is offline.  Remember that everything on the island has to be brought in by plane or ship. It’s the same for everything being removed from the island.  A plane come three times a month to bring people and some supplies, and a ship comes four times a year to bring more supplies and now to also haul away recyclable material.

Batteries to be Sent Back to the Mainland

Batteries to be Sent Back to the Mainland

The State of Hawaii just enacted a bottle redemption bill in 2005, and until two years ago there was no recycling on Midway. Everything was burned or buried.  Glass was previously crushed and included in the material for a seawall. That’s all changing, and so today after breakfast we helped pitch in at the first ever Midway Recycle Sorting Party.  All the glass collected over the last two years has been kept in a large storage shed, along with other materials in need of disposal like fluorescent light bulbs, fire extinguishers, and car batteries that are used in the only motorized transportation here – golf carts.

Nicholas school students like to get dirty, so we dove in, literally, to the task at hand.  Glass was sorted by color and by “HI” label, indicating a nickel redemption value.   As we emptied collection barrels, we filled the crates and huge bags that will be shipped back to Honolulu via the charter ship Kahana (the same ship seen on the popular television show Lost) that will arrive in March.  Quite a satisfying feeling to see how a few hours of our labor can make such a large dent in the workload here. Last year they shipped back the first collection of recycled cans, and got $4,500 back for theNational Wildlife Refuge.  This year, we hope they can reclaim even more funds to help the monument.  Never short on ideas, we gathered together and brainstormed about what more could be done on the island (as in the rest of the world) in the way of sustainability.  Some ideas included composting (a task that would need a little more innovation out here to avoid accidentally releasing invasive species — apple trees are not native to Midway), requiring all island visitors to donate either time or money towards community work, solar power, and even shifting the purchasing from bottles to something less bulky.  Darlene, the purchasing manager for Midway, told us in fact they will be switching to canned beers, as aluminum is much cheaper and easier to handle, and can be crushed.

Oil Drum

Oil Drum

Do you have any other ideas for Midway sustainability? Leave us a comment and we’ll pass it along.

Part two of our day took us down to the South Beach for some more dirty work – cleaning up the debris that circulates in the North Pacific Gyre and eventually washes ashore on Midway and the other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  Mike Press scored the find of the day, a Japanese glass fishing float.  We mostly uncovered plastic, glass bottles, Styrofoam, rope and pieces of fishing net.  It is shocking to see how much debris ends up here, since none of it originates here.  Everything has an associated cost, and the penalty of not incorporating the cost of proper trash disposal at the start is the effort of cleaning it up and re-disposing of it somewhere else.

Mike Press scored the find of the day, a Japanese glass fishing float.

Mike Press scored the find of the day, a Japanese glass fishing float.

Each year, the Coast Guard comes out and cleans the reef of fishing net and line that gets snagged. They take that plus everything that the island crew remove during beach cleanups like the one we did today.  One year of just the washed up netting makes a huge pile!

Rope and Fishing Nets Collected on Midway

Rope and Fishing Nets Collected on Midway

As we extrapolate our experiences from today out to the rest of world, we realize that there is no where on Earth that is not touched by humans.  Everything that is produced, purchased, and discarded ends up somewhere — it can even end up as far away as Midway.

What do you think?  What are some ways to make sure our household products don’t end up somewhere like Midway?


  1. David Palange
    Dec 9, 2009

    Great post Corrie. Is there any information on where the cans, bottles, etc are coming from? In other words, is most of the recyclable material coming from the US?

    The truth is the US recycling rate is still only around 33%. I haven’t read too many studies but I would hypothesize that states that offer money in exchange for cans have a higher recycling rate. Cities, many of which have curbside pick-ups, are more efficient at recycling than more rural area. However, there is still a long way to go. Houston, the fourth largest city, has a 2.6% recycling rate ( If cities can’t get obtain high rates of recycling, how can we expect rural areas to?

    • Corrie Curtice
      Dec 9, 2009

      Hi David — For the recyclables, they are bottles being purchased by the people on Midway. So beer, liquor, soda, food products, etc. I’m not sure where these products are produced. Alternatives are being looked at — they would love to reduce the cost of shipping (glass is bulky) and also the manual labor they now know is involved in getting everything sorted and returned to the main islands!

  2. Nancy Press
    Dec 9, 2009

    Great job on recycling and cleaning up the beach! Now if only we can keep the people half way around the world from putting the trash in the water to begin with…

    • Erich Neilson
      Dec 9, 2009

      Really good job, because it’s our responsibility to keep environment clean and recycling can do a nice job.

  3. Gary Tramba
    Jun 11, 2010

    Briliant job.But almost every waste has just have to find the right outlet for it. I am a recycling, waste management and environmental advisor based in Ireland. If there is anything i can do to help,don`t hesitate to contact me by e-mail.

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