Utilizing More Than Beach Clean-ups to Combat Hawaii’s Trash Problem

“A lot of rubbish doesn’t end up where we intend it to,” says Katie Dobkin of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii to our Marine Conservation Biology course on Waimanalo Beach in Oahu. She is standing in front of a shipping container that serves as the mobile classroom for non-profit. Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii is led by a small team, but it’s backbone is the volunteers who come to clean Hawaii’s coastlines, and the beaches certainly need cleaning. Marine debris and nurdles are clearly present on the beach right behind the shipping container.

Katie offers us an overview of Hawaii’s, and specifically Oahu’s, ever worsening trash problem. The problem doesn’t exist just in Hawaii, however, because at the root of the trash problem is us – all humans. With us comes the single-use utensils we are holding in our hands or the plastic bags we use that are polluting the oceans and killing marine life. Katie says these single-use plastics make up two-thirds of ocean trash and if we “eliminate those we’ll have and create less trash.” Currently, Oahu is on its 77th landfill in less than 100 years, and Oahu burns approximately 90% of its trash. Recycling is usually shipped to the mainland U.S. or to China.

Since February 2011, when the first beach cleanup by the Hawaii chapter was organized over beers, volunteers have helped remove more than 90,000 pounds of debris from the beaches. Even with impressive success from the cleanups, the staff says that the debris problem is actually getting worse, which makes you wonder about whether or not eliminating single-use plastics is the only answer to such an overwhelming problem.

Kahi Pacarro, the Executive Director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, states that even though the group hosts a number of beach cleanups a year, “cleaning beaches isn’t the answer. We need to focus on the source and slow down the tap.” Single-use plastics are part of the source, but so is education, designing better products and setting an example for the rest of the world.

The Hawaii chapter reaches anywhere from 6,000-8,000 kids per year with their educational program in addition to hosting beach cleanups and running public awareness campaigns. There is more interest now than ever from locals who want to participate in beach cleanups. Kahi also insists emphatically that “pollution is a failed design” and that we need to learn to avoid planned obsolescence and “recognize the power of our wallets…use each of [our] dollars as a vote and lead by example.” Kahi explains that Hawaii is a microcosm and that if islands in the middle of the Pacific can start eliminating marine debris and trash, then people anywhere can do it.

In a 2016 World Economic Forum Report, researchers predicted that the ocean will contain more plastics (in weight) than fish by 2050. This report is assuming we continue with our current wasteful habits. Although marine debris is a widespread problem, it is also preventable. As Katie said towards the end of her presentation, “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle” is a mantra we could all stand to live by: know that as a consumer, you have the power to refuse those single-use plastics or products that will quickly become obsolete. Be cognizant of the products you use or buy so that your waste doesn’t contribute to covering Hawaii’s beaches in marine debris.