Giant mounds of plastic waste wash up on Hawaii’s beaches statewide, and it’s usually coming from far away. What can be done to tackle this problem?

We got a firsthand look and were shocked at what we found. On all islands, it’s a problem that’s only expected to get worse as the decades go on if some drastic changes aren’t made.

Ocean currents bring waste from all around the world, and our shores collect it.

“This is happening right here on a daily basis on the entire east side of Oahu, and the east side of every single Hawaiian island all the way up to Midway Atoll,” explained Kahi Pacarro of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. “The problem is it’s not going to stop. It’s actually going to get three times worse in the next decade.” 

What doesn’t come on shore finds its way onto our reefs, even into the bellies of sea life.

“Ecologically, the big problem with plastic being in the ocean is that it’s being mistaken for food,” Pacarro said.

It tends to hit certain shores, but our islands in the middle of the Pacific serve as a catchall for a growing sea of trash.

“Eventually it’s going to start affecting Waikiki, the leeward sides. People are going to start exploring to the east sides as well and be like, ‘We don’t want to come to Hawaii anymore,'” Pacarro said. “In the meantime, we have to keep cleaning up, otherwise our beaches will be completely covered in trash.”

“All these beach cleanups are great for creating awareness about the problem,” said Mark Manuel, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Marine Debris coordinator. “But removal is just the band-aid solution to the problem. The true solution lies in prevention.”

Prevention starts when consumers refuse to use plastic, or lawmakers try to ban it bag by bag. Also following the adage of reduce, reuse, and recycle what you don’t refuse. But much of the trash that comes ashore appears to come from foreign places or as the detritus from industries notorious for ocean litter.

“Derelict fishing gear poses a detrimental impact on our reefs and our wildlife here in the state,” Manuel said. He says a DLNR marine debris report process has made it easier to initiate removal after large waste wash-ups are seen.

“They’re taking steps to being more proactive and responsive to debris that washes ashore,” Manuel said, “because any shoreline debris is ultimately state and county jurisdiction. It just depends on where that debris lies.”

There are some experimental approaches to managing the waste at sea, from plastic-eating enzymes to ocean-anchored trash skimmers, that are being tested elsewhere. But it is such a small-scale fix right now versus a garbage patch measured in millions of square kilometers, experts say none are practical match for the size of the problem.

“We need to be held responsible to stop the way we’re consuming so that it never gets into the ocean in the first place,” Pacarro said. “Plastic is made out of oil, so in a sense all of this plastic in our oceans is an oil spill. This should be a superfund site right here.”

If it was an oil spill on our shores, we’d see booms. We’d see federal and state resources out there. Not so much with marine debris, so Always Investigating asked, what’s going on?

“That’s a really great question. We’re very much aware of the problem in the state,” Manuel said. “I think one big difference during an oil spill, for example, we know the responsible party.”

There are also laws, insurance, a trust fund, and oil taxes to draw from for response.

“In the case of marine debris, we don’t have an act or a fund to pull from so to say,” Manuel said, “and it’s really difficult to know where the true source is.”

Always Investigating asked, is there any momentum from lawmakers and regulator to try to get those same kind of resources behind plastic pollution prevention, like there is behind something like oil?

“I think there is a large push within our nongovernmental organizations to work with legislation to come up with that kind of tax laws maybe to address the problem, or create an abatement fund,” Manuel said.

Meanwhile, advocates ask consumers to try to abate their own use of plastics one by one, day by day, and support legislation that curbs plastic throwaways like bags and containers.

“Take two days and simply collect all the different plastic that is created in your day,” Pacarro suggested. “Throw it in a jar and see where you’re at at the end of two days. And then go the next two days trying to eliminate as much as you can and see how you do. Figure out ‘what can I invest in my life to negate my need to use plastic?”

We’ll follow up on legislation that can help cut down on the consumer waste that can make it to the oceans and beaches, also clean up efforts near term and long term to cut back on this tide of ocean debris.

How to report marine debris for a clean-up response

How you can get involved with beach cleanups