Engineered to stick around for decades—and potentially thousands of years or more — single-use plastic continues its journey long after we throw it away.
There’s something curiously perverse about the soap dispenser sitting by the sink in the guest bathroom of my parents’ house: I can tell by the sunrise shell glued to the front of the bottle that the scrap of nylon netting around it is meant to resemble a miniature fishing net. It’s charming and beachy, probably a DIY gift from a crafty acquaintance. But it begs the question, how did seashells and trash become so inextricably linked?
Humans have been fishing for tens of thousands of years, but only in the last 50 years or so has the practice left such a pervasive spectacle of marine debris on our shorelines. Once made from natural, biodegradable fibers—Native Hawaiians favored olonā bark and ‘ie‘ie vine—today’s nets, lines, and traps are made from synthetic materials to weather the elements like never before.
As with so many other things in our lives, we devised a cheaper and more durable alternative to the organic stuff, and now wayward plastic is piling up in our oceans at an alarming pace.
At this rate, if we’re to believe predictions from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastic will outweigh fish in the sea within the next 30 years. Meaning tiny plastic fishing nets will make perfect sense as decorative accents if you’re looking to conjure reveries about the ocean.
Though all of the islands act like sieves for this swirling junkpile of marine debris, Kamilo’s location at the southeastern tip of the Hawaiian archipelago puts it in the crossfire of onshore winds and plastic-laden surface currents, which together dump 10 to 20 tons of trash onto its half-mile stretch of coastline every year.
Early one morning in December, I step off a plane on my way to visit ground zero of Hawai‘i’s plastic-pollution crisis. “Going to Wai‘ōhinu?” my Lyft driver asks as I climb into the backseat of his Subaru Forester at Kona International Airport. Then, after a pause: “What are you going to do there?” I’m guessing his airport pickups don’t usually lead him to the small town of Wai‘ōhinu in Hawai‘i Island’s rural Ka‘ū district. I tell him I’m meeting a group to pick up trash at Kamilo Beach.
“You been there before?” he asks. “It’s bad.” Apparently, everyone here is well aware of Kamilo’s reputation as Plastic Beach, made infamous by news outlets declaring it one of the world’s dirtiest beaches. Less clear, perhaps, is how it earned that sorry nickname. Later, in a different car headed back to Kona, my driver wonders aloud, “Why is there so much trash at Kamilo?”
I explain that Kamilo Beach is the unfortunate dumping ground for trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast expanse of marine debris dispersed an indeterminate distance across the surface and upper water column of the north Pacific Ocean. Comprised of two distinct garbage patches weighing an estimated 80,000 tons, it’s the largest and most notorious of the trash heaps accumulating in our planet’s five major ocean gyres, which help circulate water around the globe like giant, slow-moving whirlpools, pulling objects such as buoyant plastic toward their centers.
Though all of the islands act like sieves for this swirling junkpile of marine debris, Kamilo’s location at the southeastern tip of the Hawaiian archipelago puts it in the crossfire of onshore winds and plastic-laden surface currents, which together dump 10 to 20 tons of trash onto its half-mile stretch of coastline every year. This combination of circumstances is why, despite cleanup efforts by local conservation groups, an unpopulated beach in Hawai‘i has come to be known as one of the most plastic-littered places on Earth.
In Wai‘ōhinu, I gather with 20 others in a semi-circle around Megan Lamson, a marine biologist who has been leading beach cleanups with the nonprofit Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund for more than a decade. She instructs us to prioritize large pieces of litter over small ones, presumably in the interest of efficiency and due to their risk for animal entanglement, and before long, we split up into different cars for the drive to Kamilo. I find myself sandwiched between two volunteers in the backseat of a heavy-duty pickup truck, the bed of which has been outfitted with a ramp, winch, 150-foot cable, and logging hook for the express purpose of hauling derelict fishing nets from the shoreline.
Though our journey is only nine miles, it takes us nearly two hours to navigate the coast’s rugged terrain. The dried bozu lei hanging from the rearview mirror swings wildly as we crawl five miles per hour down the rough, unpaved road to Kamilo, which takes us through groves of invasive kiawe, former cattle runs with crumbling rock-wall enclosures, and jagged lava fields littered with fallen albizia trees swept south along the coast after the 2018 volcanic eruption in lower Puna. The smell of sulfur fills the car as we near the ocean. At one point, we’re bouncing up and down along the rocks at the water’s edge, only a few feet from the churning waves of Ka‘alu‘alu Bay.
We veer left and follow the bay to Kamilo Point, where fierce winds tear down the coast. The beach is blanketed in gnarled driftwood that was carried ashore by the same powerful currents that inspired early inhabitants to call the place Kamilo, meaning “swirling currents.”
Massive evergreen logs, which still regularly wash in from the Pacific Northwest, were once gathered here by Native Hawaiians as building material for dugout canoes. Kamilo is said to be where bodies would turn up following accidents at sea, where travelers could send lei from up the coast to let those back home in Ka‘ū know they had safely arrived at their destinations.
Despite cleanup efforts by local conservation groups, an unpopulated beach in Hawai‘i has come to be known as one of the most plastic-littered places on Earth.
Due to storm events, wind, currents, and other factors affecting ocean dynamics, I’m told the winter season is a clean time of year for Kamilo Beach, but as usual, the worst problems are the ones you can’t see. At first glance, I hardly notice the vibrant confetti of plastic scattered among the tidewrack, but looking closer, I realize the stuff is everywhere—strewn about the rocks, mixed in the sand, swirling in the shallows like flakes in a snow globe. I duck into an opening in the sprawling thicket of beach heliotrope lining the shore and find a trove of plastic debris lodged in the dense tangle of branches: waterlogged shoes, broken clothes hangers, tattered fishing net, foam fishing floats, a set of kid’s costume fangs.
There’s a small tire from Japan, a scrap of plastic lined with Chinese characters, the lid from a Nestlé container, and a weathered bottle of Boots UK shower gel (in the scent of “sea minerals,” ironically enough).
Next I come across a hard, flat wad of plastic curled in on itself like the folds of a brain. I later learn that this perplexing specimen is known as plastiglomerate, likely formed by the heat of a campfire melting plastic trash in the dirt and sand, fusing it into a composite of plastic and natural sediment.
Geologists predict that these plastic-sediment hybrids will persist in the fossil record as a marker of the Anthropocene, an unofficial but commonly used term for the current geological age, of which plastic will be one of humanity’s most lasting legacies.
Due to storm events, wind, currents, and other factors affecting ocean dynamics, I’m told the winter season is a clean time of year for Kamilo Beach, but as usual, the worst problems are the ones you can’t see.
Estimates for how long it takes different plastics to break down range from decades to hundreds of years, but contrary to popular belief, the jury’s out on whether or not plastic ever biodegrades. “Those numbers are good, in a way, to raise awareness among consumers, but from a scientific perspective, they aren’t necessarily accurate,” says Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a postdoctoral research fellow studying plastic and microfiber degradation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. “Scientists have found very few organisms using plastic as a source of nutrients. Plastic degrades due to several degradation processes, fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces until it is invisible to the naked eye, but how much of it is actually transforming into something useful for nature, we have no idea.”
What we do know is that microplastic is turning up in the most remote reaches of the planet, from the peaks of the Pyrénées mountains to the depths of the Mariana Trench. Plastic has found its way into sea ice in the Arctic, rainwater samples in the Rocky Mountains, soil and groundwater systems the world over, and, most alarming of all, our bodies.
A new study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund revealed we may be consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic every week, and not just those of us with a taste for seafood.
“We probably ingest more microfibers in five minutes at home than in the flesh of the fish we eat,” Royer says.
Royer’s work in this area follows a groundbreaking study she led during her time at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education, which discovered that plastics increasingly produce climate-warming methane, ethylene, and other greenhouse gases as they degrade, even more so on land than at sea.
“To know if it has a significant contribution to climate change, we need better numbers [for the amount, surface area, and types of plastic out there],” Royer says, though she and other researchers are working with the European Space Agency to quantify the problem via satellite. In fact, little is known about the potential impacts of plastic pollution anywhere other than the marine ecosystem, but suffice it to say, plastic in the ocean isn’t the only kind we should be worried about.
We probably ingest more microfibers in five minutes at home than in the flesh of the fish we eat.
Most of us are aware of plastic’s capacity for physical damage—that image of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose is a hard one to forget—but plastic has also proven to leach toxic chemicals and act as a vehicle for persistent organic pollutants it attracts from the surrounding environment. That’s bad news, seeing as plastics are fragmenting into particles small enough to bypass wastewater-treatment plants and to be mistaken for food by organisms that form the basis of the marine food web; it’s worse news if those microplastics are crossing cell membranes, as Royer’s latest research suggests.
The day after the cleanup at Kamilo Beach, I meet Megan Lamson of the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund at a cafe in Keauhou. She informs me our group collected 886 pounds of debris, including 60 pounds of “ghost gear,” or abandoned nets, lines, and other fishing equipment. As she explains how the ocean acts like a sorting device—buoyant plastic can travel far distances on the ocean surface, while denser plastic typically sinks at the source—the barista hands us our drinks.
To my chagrin, mine comes in a plastic cup. I awkwardly call attention to this fact once the barista is out of earshot, eyeing Lamson’s latte in its ceramic mug. “Guilt is natural,” Lamson says, unfazed. “But it’s important for people to not be so overwhelmed by the scale of the problem that it spurs inactivity. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, every small step matters.”
Trash consumes at least two-thirds of Lamson’s time as president and Hawai‘i Island program director for the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. The organization cleared some 56,000 pounds of it from the shores of Hawai‘i Island in 2019 alone and has been using data from its monthly debris surveys for environmental education and to support prevention efforts like the Styrofoam and plastic bag bans on Hawai‘i Island and Maui. To confront an issue as complex as plastic pollution, I imagine it helps to understand it first.
When it comes to plastic in the environment, misconceptions abound. Overzealous media has painted the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a nightmarish island of trash twice the size of Texas, but in reality, you might not notice this vortex of plastic waste unless you passed right through it.
When long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte swam 300 nautical miles through the eastern portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2019, he and his support crew spotted one plastic fragment every other second and a piece of larger debris once every three minutes on average—hardly the trash swamp of lore but rather a plastic smog lurking below the surface. Yet it’s the image of a floating landfill that’s galvanized initiatives to clean up some of the mess we’ve made in the 70 years since we began mass-producing plastic, the most high-profile being The Ocean Cleanup helmed by 25-year-old Dutch inventor Boyan Slat.
Billed as “the largest cleanup in history,” The Ocean Cleanup is developing the prototype for a passive trash-catching system designed to work like an artificial coastline to collect marine debris drifting on the surface of the ocean. In deploying a fleet of these floating barriers, the organization estimates it will be able to capture, collect, extract, and recycle half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years and 90 percent of the plastic in all of the ocean’s gyres by 2040.
The project has roused its fair share of skeptics: conservationists concerned about its impact on wildlife, oceanographers dubious of its efficacy, and plastic-pollution experts who contend that our efforts would be more productive upstream.
“Once plastic gets to the gyres, much of the damage to marine life through ingestion and entanglement has been done,” writes environmental scientist Marcus Eriksen in his book Junk Raft, a chronicle of Eriksen’s three-month voyage from California to Hawai‘i on a raft made of plastic trash. “Plastic is largely not making it to the gyres [intact], unless it’s something designed to last, like fishing gear. ‘Gyre cleaners’ typically underestimate how quickly plastic is torn apart, fragmenting from macroplastic to microplastic. If you’re hell-bent on cleaning up the gyres, the science of current movements suggests the best place to be effective is very close to shore or at river mouths. Focus on gyre cleanup and you’ve missed the boat.”
Part of Eriksen’s beef with The Ocean Cleanup has to do with a discrepancy between the 270,000 tons of plastic believed to be drifting in the world’s oceans and the 8.8 million tons leaving our coastlines every year. A 2019 study by Slat and his team accounts for the disparity by proposing it can take decades for plastic hanging out at the coasts to migrate in measurable quantities into the open ocean.
Previous studies, however, have mostly led Eriksen and other experts to presume that the majority of the plastic entering the ocean isn’t floating on the surface like we thought, but landing back on our beaches, being ingested by wildlife, sinking to the seafloor, and splintering into a growing haze of microplastic.
“When I first spoke with The Ocean Cleanup, I had my doubts,” admits Royer, now one of The Ocean Cleanup’s go-to oceanographers and a science advisor to brands and nonprofits addressing the plastic crisis closer to the source, including Parley for the Oceans, Hydroflask, Icebreaker, and European textile giant Lenzing. “But if you think about it,” Royer says, “beach cleaners do the same thing. They remove plastic that’s been trashed. These are different organizations with different purposes, and we are trying to solve the issue from different sides. One organization can’t do it all.”
It turns out The Ocean Cleanup had, in fact, been devising another method to rid the world’s oceans of plastic: The Interceptor, an autonomous, solar-powered river barge designed to catch trash before it enters the ocean. As for where on Earth they plan to put the thing, Slat and his team investigated the world’s top polluting rivers and determined that 1 percent of them are responsible for 80 percent of the plastic entering the ocean by way of our river systems. An earlier study out of Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research attributed as much as 95 percent of the problem to 10 rivers in Asia and Africa.
Numbers aside, both reports have made it easy to point the finger at developing nations, inadequate waste management, and the habits of a growing consumer population. “There’s a lack of infrastructure in general to deal with the waste that we generate today as a society, and that’s what we’re trying to tackle,” stated Jim Fitterling, CEO of plastics manufacturer The Dow Chemical Company, during a talk at the inaugural Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in China in September 2019.
“Anyone tells you it’s a waste-management problem, they’re lying,” countered Tony Faddell, creator of the Nest smart thermostat, father of the iPod, and one of the early designers of the iPhone. Fadell delivered that zinger at the close of a presentation in which he dismissed recycling, incineration, and even bioplastics as palliative and misguided, proposing instead that products come in consumer-compostable packaging made of biowaste. Still, deflecting blame has proved an effective strategy for those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Anti-litter campaigns of the ’50s and ’60s—initiated largely by plastic industry groups—implored the public, “don’t be a litterbug,” all the while enticing them with the luxury and convenience of products meant to be thrown away after use.
Today, single-use plastics account for half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year.
Today, single-use plastics account for half of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year. Considering most of the material value of that kind of plastic is lost after its first use, it’s no wonder that a dismal 9 percent of plastic waste has lived a second or third life, leaving the majority to hang around in landfills or in the natural environment long after use. “We can’t continue to justify bad behavior by upping our recycling programs or relying on an ocean cleanup in the middle of the Pacific. We need to bring the issue home and stop buying this crap in the first place,” Lamson says. “We’re part of the problem, but it’s harder to see. Even the stuff washing in from Asia—where do you think we’ve been sending our trash?”
China was buying 70 percent of the world’s contaminated and poorly sorted plastic waste before its National Sword policy took effect in early 2018, banning imports of certain waste materials, enforcing stricter contamination standards in others, and sending the global recycling market into a tailspin.
In Hawai‘i, our distance and small scale puts us at a disadvantage in the recycling game, even more so in a dwindling market. Now that Hawai‘i County has stopped accepting all plastic and most paper recyclables, it’ll be that much harder for us to claim the moral high ground when it comes to waste.
How to Help
In the wake of this development, along with one of Hawai‘i Island’s two landfills recently hitting capacity, grassroots groups are working harder than ever to reduce plastic pollution in our own backyards.
Coastal advocacy nonprofits like Sustainable Coastlines Hawai‘i and the Surfrider Foundation O‘ahu Chapter have long set their sights upstream, engaging the public through civic action and citizen science in addition to organizing large-scale beach cleanups in hopes that seeing what’s drifting in the ocean will inspire people to change what they do on land. Programs and organizations championing a zero-waste ethos of wasting less, not just recycling more, have sprung up on most of the major Hawaiian Islands, including Hawai‘i Island, O‘ahu, Maui, and Kaua‘i. Together these organizations have succeeded in rallying support for measures like Bill 40, the nation’s most comprehensive regulation of single-use plastics, which was signed into law in December 2019.
But you don’t need to spend the day at Plastic Beach stuffing feed bags with discarded bottles, net, and plastic scraps of every color, shape, and size to realize there are flaws in the system.
A good look around at all the plastic filling our supermarkets, pantries, refrigerators, and bathroom cabinets will tell you that. But until the Tony Faddells out there fundamentally overhaul the way stuff is made, used, and packaged, we each have a choice to make (and remake, ad infinitum).
Whether you turn off the tap or go with flow, things have a way of coming around. Back on O‘ahu, on a shoreline much closer to home, I watch the waves carry a flurry of plastic in and out of the tide pools at my feet before finally dragging the specks into deeper waters, out of sight but never truly gone.