Plastic Paradise : The Marine Debris Crisis

Students participate in beach clean up, witness eco-challenges first-hand

Contributing Writer and Photographer Adrienne Gurbindo

As most people know, plastic is a versatile material used in a wide range of daily activities. Plastic has been a feature of everyday living for more than a generation, and can be found in so many different products. This material is used in a variety of applications, spanning from packaging, agriculture, electrical devices, building and construction materials, medical instruments, as well as sports and recreational activities. This multifaceted material has our culture obsessed with the effortless convenience it provides.

It is all too easy to grab a quick bite to eat that comes in a plastic container; or, to pick up a plastic utensil to eat with, and finally, pair our meal with a drink that most likely comes in a plastic bottle. After lunch is finished, these leftover plastic remnants get thrown away or recycled - but only if the type of plastic used is recyclable. While some of these plastics do eventually arrive in the ever-brimming landfill, a large amount of plastics find their way into a place where they clearly don’t belong: our oceans.

The worldwide spread of marine plastic and debris is increasing at an alarming rate. Most of the marine debris comes from a land-based source. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the average American generates just over 4 lbs of trash each day. In turn, marine debris is a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of marine wildlife; oftentimes, animals become entangled and trapped in nets or ingests toxic debris. In 2010 alone, it was calculated that 4-12 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean. Half of the plastic that enters the marine environment floats and has the ability to travel thousands of miles with the currents. These currents form the major gyres of the world’s oceans. Hawai‘i lies within the North Pacific gyre, and although it is the world’s most isolated populated landmass in the world, it accumulates a substantial amount of marine debris.

A few weeks ago, UH Hilo geography instructor Drew Kapp and his class teamed up with Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund to take part in a beach cleanup at Kamilo Beach. Kapp’s class, entitled “Hawai‘i in the Pacific,” emphasizes the relation between Hawai‘i and Oceania with an indigenous perspective. The purpose of this beach cleanup was to participate in a huaka‘i - an enriching educational experience - via community service. Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of Hawai‘i’s native flora and fauna. Kamilo Beach, located on the southern tip of the Big Island and once a pristine paradise, is now infamous for its massive accumulation of plastic pollution and marine debris. Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund has been a key participant in helping protect the state’s coastline and organizes Kamilo Beach cleanups quarterly. This particular cleanup boasted a substantial crew of around 80 participants.

James DeMolina, a junior majoring in marine science, shared his thoughts on the state of the cleanup site.

“I had to take a moment for myself because I was stricken at the amount of marine debris. I felt guilty about every single water bottle I’ve ever had.”

The beach was packed with marine debris that ranged in a variety of sizes and compositions; most of the plastics were unidentifiable.

Another marine science major, senior Kanoe Phillips, recounted his first impression of the beach: “When we first arrived and saw the condition of the beach I did not think the beach would look any different by the time we left because of the amount of plastic, but fortunately it did,” Phillips said. “However, although we did clear the beach of larger plastic fragments, the closer you looked the more you found because plastic eventually degrades into microscopic pieces that are impossible to collect.”

Shards of plastic cover the beach

These pieces are quite impossible to gather, as DeMolina pointed out that “plastics don’t biodegrade. The term biodegrade is a misnomer because plastics just break up into smaller and smaller pieces [microplastics], they will never molecularly change their structure like organic compounds that recycle their nutrients.” Thus, even if invisible to the eye, microplastics will forever exist within and influence our ecosystems.

While keeping beaches plastic and marine-debris free is an integral part towards environmental stewardship, keeping it out of the water is just as imperative towards the overall health of the oceanic ecosystem. Phillips elaborated on this topic when asked why plastic is hazardous to the environment.

“Marine plastic can contain high levels of heavy metals and PCB’s that can bioaccumulate within the food chain.”

Plastics that degrade into bite-sized pieces are frequently consumed by marine wildlife, including sea turtles, whales, and others. The plastics that are ingested by marine wildlife can lead to blockage in the gut, potentially causing serious injury or even death.

It is important to remove larger pieces of plastic from the coast because eventually these too will degrade into microplastics.

By the end of the day, the cleanup crew managed to remove literally tons of marine debris from Kamilo Beach.

Author’s Note:

The side effects of our society’s plastic addiction are accumulating at an unsustainable level. Is our cultural mindset, based off of mere convenience, worth the environmental degradation? There are many ways we consumers can help blunt these impacts - primarily by limiting plastic consumption.

Almost half of the plastic we use are single-use plastics: used once and then tossed into the trash. Opting for reusable products alleviates a substantial amount of waste per person. Reusable water bottles, coffee cups, straws, take-out containers, and utensils are a great place to start in our fast-paced culture. For more information on limiting consumer waste, check out the links listed below. In DeMolina’s view, experiencing and participating in a local beach clean-up is a great way to give back to the environment: “You don’t believe it ‘til you see it.”

For more information on this subject, refer to the following links: