Hawai‘i’s plastic beaches aren’t just unsightly, they’re potentially dangerous.

Environment / The local nonprofit Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii, or B.E.A.C.H. as it’s better known, is collecting data for a landmark study on the extent to which our waters are choked with plastic, and what it means for the overall health of the oceans. Since September 2008, B.E.A.C.H. members have been working with a team of volunteers to collect and sort millions of bits of marine debris from stretches of secluded beaches on Oahu–mainly in Kahuku.

“We’re finding rope, net, pieces of crate, buoys, plastic from bottles, oyster spacers, some metal, some glass, wood and cloth but just a huge, huge amount of plastic,” said B.E.A.C.H. co-founder Suzanne Frazer. “We sorted and weighed hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic.”

The group is focusing mainly on Windward shores that are relatively secluded and largely forgotten, which allows a more precise look at just how much debris collects there. It’s an approach that Frazer said also serves as a reminder of how many beaches are neglected.

“The clean-up effort for our beaches has been really on keeping tourist beaches clean and ignoring those that are hard to reach,” said Frazer. “So if you go to the ones that don’t get a lot of foot traffic, the debris is just left to accumulate and accumulate and break down and break down and that’s why there’s a lot of little bits of plastic. Some of it is one foot deep in places. You can’t even see the sand.”

Cleaning up these beaches is mostly a happy byproduct of the group’s greater aim, which is to better understand the kind of marine debris that is being deposited on our shores, while also clearing up long-held misconceptions about the most commonly found garbage on Hawaii beaches.

“I think that people everywhere are going to be very surprised at the results,” said Frazer. “When you talk about debris, people think beer bottles, tires, cigarette butts, Coke cans, that kind of thing. This is not what we mostly find. Marine debris is a totally different kettle of fish from beachgoer trash, littering and dumping.”

Frazer and B.E.A.C.H. co-founder Dean Otsuki have enlisted the help of school groups and volunteers to divide the debris into various categories. They then take the sorted plastics and catalog the debris themselves.

“We can look at a tiny piece of plastic and work out whether it’s a piece of a bottle, a piece of a plastic toothbrush, even a piece of a plastic popsicle stick,” said Frazer. “To the untrained eye, they throw up their hands and say, ‘how could you possibly tell?’ It’s just that we’ve been doing this so long.”

The project is also highlighting how much debris reaches Oahu from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an oceanic landfill said to be twice the size of Texas that floats in a wasteland of water above the Northwest Hawaiian Islands where Frazer said most of the debris accumulates. Even more importantly–and gravely–it points to growing concerns over how much of a threat plastic is to public health.

“What happens to plastic when it lands on the shoreline is it starts to photodegrade because the sun is able to heat it up, whereas it retains its shape in the cool water,” said Frazer. “The small, degraded plastic at high tide gets washed back out into the ocean. Once you’ve got micro-plastics just a few millimeters big, that’s the right size for many of the bottom-of-the-food-chain type of marine organisms to eat and ingest. Plankton has been shown to ingest plastic pieces and this is the most troubling of all because fish are being opened up and they find they are just filled with plastic.”

“You have plastic leaching BPA [Bisphenol A] and stuff like that into the water and plastic accumulating other toxins on top of it,” said Frazer.

The compound BPA is of particular concern to Frazer–and others who are lobbying for it to be banned, or at least regulated–based on evidence that it has strange and worrisome effects on hormones in both marine and human populations.

While commercial BPA, often found in manufactured plastic bottles and in the lining of canned goods, is generally considered relatively low in toxicity, those who see it as problematic claim it accelerates puberty, leads to genital deformities in male babies, increases incidence of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, even neurological damage. Recent reports show that BPA has caused male fish to carry eggs or even fully changed male fish into females in some fish populations.

The New York Times recently reported that 100 percent of the male small-mouth bass population in the Potomac watershed now carries eggs as a result of exposure to such toxins. The Food and Drug Administration has insisted that BPA is safe.

“In humans, they looked at the birth rates in arctic communities that eat mainly seafood and they found a decline in male human baby birth,” said Frazer. “In one village there were no boys born at all. Only girls. This is how serious it is.”

In 2007, Norway’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme found a number of birth abnormalities allegedly linked to BPAs and other toxins in arctic communities.

“My belief is that this is a catastrophe that is far worse than global warming,” said Frazer. “Global warming has proved to be both preventable and reversible because we know the steps we need to take, we just have to take them. When you’re talking about plastic dust, microscopic plastic in our ocean, when 71 percent of our earth is ocean, how do we clean it all up? We don’t have the technology or the equipment or the know-how to do it and it’s out there and we can’t get rid of it.”

It’s enough of a concern to Frazer that she’s stopped eating seafood altogether. And while she keeps collecting data about the massive amount of plastic that washes up on Hawaii shores, Frazer said she wonders what it means for the future of the ocean–and for the future in general.

“Is this going to be part of evolution and change species?” Frazer asked. “Is it going to destroy species? Who knows? Who knows where this is going to lead.”

Editor’s Note: The version of this story that appeared in the July 8, 2009 issue of Honolulu Weekly contained a passage about the role of the pesticide DDT in the toxicity of plastics. The passage contained an inaccuracy and, for the sake of clarity, has been removed.

Those interested in volunteering can contact 393-2168
B.E.A.C.H. will deliver debris for sorting to volunteer groups. Another major beach clean-up is scheduled for Sept. 5.