Diary

Sea of plastic

Will a massive heap of trash land on our shores?

We’re gonna need a bigger truck: Cleaning the shores of Kamilo beach.

When Captain Charles Moore sailed the research catamaran Alguita back to California from Hawai’i after a shakedown cruise in 1997, he made a fateful decision. From time immemorial, sailors have avoided the tropical region known as the Doldrums (aka the ‘Horse Latitudes,’ because becalmed sailing ships often had to dump livestock overboard when they ran out of drinking water). Moore decided to sail straight through, thinking it would be a good test for his boat’s twin diesel engines.

He’d heard rumors of a giant garbage patch in the Doldrums where the Central Pacific Gyre current deposited thousands of square miles of floating plastic debris. He was appalled to discover the stories were true.

‘I’d sailed to Hawai’i in 1961, and I didn’t ever remember anything like that,’ he says, ‘Now, every time I came on deck, I saw a bottle cap or a shard of plastic or a soap bottle… I said, ‘I’ve gotta come back and test this out and find out much is here.”

With that voyage, the notorious garbage patch changed from seafarer’s legend to scientific fact.

Moore would sail the Alguita on multiple expeditions to document the phenomenon. In 1999, he and his crew did a systematic sample survey, and discovered that, on average, the area held six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton, the tiny creatures that form the base of the ocean’s food chain. On successive voyages, the news became exponentially more alarming. When the Alguita anchored in Radio Bay this fall after its most recent trip to the garbage patch, Moore’s crew hadn’t finished processing all the samples they’d collected, but the plastic-to-plankton ratio of many of the samples was running about 40-to-1. In one sample, it was 600-to-1.

It’s bad enough the ocean holds a continent-sized trash dump–but the trash may not stay at sea.

‘I’m afraid Hawai’i’s not ready for that invasion, because these things are poised to sweep down with the winter storms,’ says Moore. ‘And Hawai’i has no infrastructure for preventing or even cleaning it up once it reaches these shores.’

Plastic sand

It’s not just the big stuff. Most plastic is inedible to sea creatures, even bacteria; it doesn’t biodegrade. It does photo-degrade, becoming more brittle and breaking up as sunlight gradually alters its chemistry. But those pieces don’t decompose; they just keep breaking into ever-smaller pieces.

‘What you’re looking at is a future in which Hawai’i’s beaches are covered with plastic, and plastic sand will become the norm,’ says Moore.

On at least one beach near South Point in Ka’u on the Big Island, the future is already here. Kamilo Beach has always been a marine trash collector. According to local legend, Hawaiians used to go there to find evergreen logs from the Pacific Northwest to use for canoes. Today the beach is piled high with plastic debris of all sizes: crates, buoys, lobster traps, umbrella handles, oyster spacers (little plastic tubes used to separate shellfish at oyster farms) from Japan, bottles from America and Asia, dozens of plastic toothbrushes from everywhere, myriads of the little pellets from which plastic products are made–and other tiny bits as small as grains of sand. Moore thinks Kamilo is in the running for the dubious title of the world’s dirtiest beach.

In early October, Moore visited Kamilo beach with local volunteers and a marine biology class from University of Hawai’i-Hilo. The class, taught by Prof. Carla McDermott, is conducting research on the debris. The students marked off a few square meters of beach in grids, removed and categorized the larger debris and brought home samples to sift for smaller bits.

While the researchers were studying the problem, the volunteers were clearing debris. Bill Gilmartin of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund loaded his truck with fishing nets and bags of trash.

Also at work were activists Suzanne Frazer and Dean Otsuki, the founders of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai’i (B-E-A-C-H), which has initiated cleanups at several O’ahu beaches. Frazer said that she’s seen essentially the same mix of debris washing ashore at Sherwood, Bellows and Makapu’u beaches–right down to the Japanese oyster spacers–but Kamilo was far worse.

Instead of sand, ‘my shoes were filling up with little bits of plastic. That’s never happened to me before at any beach,’ she said.

‘Dean and I went every weekend for six months [to Bellows] to clean up the beach. And that was nowhere near as bad as Kamilo,’ she said. ‘We don’t even know how far down [the plastic] goes. It looks like it’s several feet deep.’ To clean up the beach, she believes it will take ‘hundreds of people and weeks or months or even years … [because] the beach is so bad that it’s going to take several hours even to make a small difference in one little patch, maybe two meters square.’

Slow poison

The problem is more than aesthetic. Plastic can be deadly at every stage of its breakdown. Large pieces, such as plastic netting, fishing line and six-pack webs, can entrap and strangle or drown wildlife. The smaller pieces can also kill from inside: plastic objects are so new to the marine environment that animals don’t know not to eat them–the pieces can lacerate guts or clog windpipes or simply fill up the stomach so that there’s no room for food. Some of the more gruesome research photos in Moore’s collection show the dissections of starved Laysan albatrosses from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. When their bulging stomachs were cut open, masses of plastic spilled out.

Some of the more insidious effects of plastic marine debris could occur as the pieces get even smaller. Many plastics leech carcinogenic or poisonous chemicals as they break down: Bisphenol A (BPA), DEHP, styrene, phthalates and others. And while they’re releasing some toxins, they’re absorbing others.

‘These things are sponges for our most toxic pollutants,’ says Moore. ‘Pesticides, DDT, PCBs … these things stick to plastic. When wildlife eats it, it gets absorbed into their systems.’

What to do?

The garbage patch and Hawai’i have become international plastics dumping grounds. The problem can’t be solved here alone. But local residents can at least avoid contributing to it. Frazer notes that the bushes around Kamilo Beach are filled with garbage bags full of trash, apparently tossed there by campers. But she’s noticed that once they’d cleaned up certain beaches, the beaches tended to stay cleaner, because people had a sense that there was something to be preserved. B-E-A-C-H has also helped matters by combining cleanups with education campaigns. After a daylong clean-up-and-educate campaign at Makapu’u Beach, they hauled away 3,427 cigarette butts; a week later, the total dropped to 394. They had similar results at Sandy Beach. Since the sands there are cleaned and sifted every two weeks by the City and County, she’s fairly confident that the reductions were the result of B-E-A-C-H’s educational effort.

Ultimately, the solution to plastic marine trash will come from recycling plastics before they get to the water–or, better still, not using plastics to start with.

Frazer and Otsuki are planning another trip to Kamilo this month to do more clean up and get a more accurate assessment the problem. They’ll also be bringing clean-up equipment to leave with local volunteers. Moore and the Alguita will be leaving soon on another expedition–further south, this time. He suspects that a second garbage patch may lurk there, feeding the trash heaps at Kamilo.


QUOTE

‘It’s not just about our team, it’s about our whole state.’

-June Jones after Saturday’s completion of an undefeated season.
(Honolulu Star-Bulletin)


FACTOID

12.4%

The amount of income that Hawai’i taxpayers pay, which puts their state and local tax burden as sixth highest in the nation, according to taxfoundation.org.