HONOLULU – The ocean means everything to Hawaii. The pristine blue water lures couples after that perfect romantic getaway. The white sands inspire families to save up all year to come. The waves on Oahu's famed North Shore attract surfers from around the world. In a good year, Hawaii's tourism industry can bring in more than $14 billion.
But Hawaii’s beaches also have some more unusual visitors, like a 17-foot Japanese boat and a blue bin with a live bird inside it. These are just two pieces of the tons of debris that have washed up from the 2011 tsunami. People have never before been able to observe so much debris dispersing from a single location. For Hawaii, it’s an environmental disaster that’s hard to predict or quantify.
“An enormous part of our world is based on the ocean,” said Mark Manuel, who grew up on these beaches. “… I was born and raised here in the state and I feel a responsibility to do my part so that my children have clean beaches and fish to eat every day.”
Manuel made doing his part his full-time job. He works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been trying to keep these islands clean for more than 13 years.
“It's just a constant battle,” Manuel said. “There's just a constant flux of plastic floats and plastic fabric.”
The garbage flow predates the tsunami, but Manuel's job got a lot harder when Japan’s magnitude-8.9 earthquake triggered waves higher than 100 feet, sweeping millions of tons of material out to sea. Radiation from the debris is not a major risk, most experts say. The problem is the debris itself.
An ugly day at the beach
Hawaii's North West Islands act like a fine-toothed comb, filtering debris from the North Pacific Gyre. The gyre is a system of currents that push the waters of the Pacific, and everything in them, in a clockwise circle. This creates what some have called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The term isn’t perfectly accurate. There is no solid island of trash the size of Texas heading America’s way. But the trash is there. In some spots, the motion of the currents makes it particularly dense, throughout the water column. And close to 90 percent of that garbage is plastic.
This plastics problem isn't always evident. At first glance, many beautiful Hawaiian beaches appear untouched, that is until you dig in. Study a fistful of sand and you will see countless specks of man-made polymers. And it isn’t all from Japan.
“We've been finding various debris some with Korean, Japanese, things from the United States, as well,” Manuel said.
curator, Hawaii’s Sea Life Park
You name it, and Manuel and his team have found it floating out at sea or washed into shore. “We find televisions, tires, light bulbs, lots of lighters, shoes,” he said
It can make for an ugly day at the beach. But that's not Manuel or NOAA’s main motivation. They’re worried about the Hawaiian monk seal and green sea turtles asphyxiating themselves on a massive scale.
“These guys will go along and eat plastic bags and pieces of plastic, thinking that it's food,” said Jeff Pawlowski, who works with injured animals at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park. “They get it lodged in their intestinal tract.“
Pawlowski fears that if something isn’t done, the next generation will never know the Hawaiian sea turtle.
It isn’t just sea animals that are at risk. Another researcher, David Hyrenbach, did an ultrasound of many of the birds at Sea Life Park, and found that every single one had some amount of plastics inside them.
The park opens its doors to the public to bring in birds injured by plastic and other ocean debris, but this help comes at a price. The birds that come in often become very familiar with humans, in some cases so familiar that they’re unable to re-enter the wild.
The sad irony is that some of the debris, like large cargo nets, act as mobile reefs and attract all kinds of fish. A recent study in the journal Nature also found that the plastic works like a sponge, physically pulling in chemicals from the water. Then, the fish ingest the chemical-soaked plastic, passing toxins through the food chain, where it potentially ends up in the fish on our dinner table.
A net bad
Mike Ostendorp, a commercial fisherman in Honolulu, said that when he spots a floating cargo net, he will actually go fishing out there. But the debris causes problems for him as well.
“It's a hazard to fishing and driving a boat,” said Ostendorp, remembering one time that the Coast Guard sent him email asking him to help disentangle another vessel from some floating netting. Ostendorp had to give the crew of the other boat diving gear so they could swim under the boat and detach themselves. It took hours, he said.
Ostendorp tries to do his part by recycling and reusing. He came upon a big yellow buoy that he now uses as a chair.
And there are larger efforts to make use of the trash. “Nets to Energy” is Hawaii's program to turn plastic into power for the island. Massive clippers used for cutting through steel slice through piles of recovered nets.
The nets seem innocent lying around in a pile, but they can be surprisingly destructive, ripping through coral reefs, threatening sea life and even gumming up heavy machinery.
Once the nets are chopped up, they head to the incinerator and join the rest of Oahu's trash. The energy created helps power about 10 percent of the island, although not without emitting carbon dioxide.
This practice, however, only makes a small dent in the larger debris dilemma. Manuel said the funding for cleanups isn't consistent. Many of the beaches that are more popular with Hawaii’s tourists are cleaned regularly, but the remote stretches aren’t so lucky. There’s also more plastic left at sea, where it endangers wildlife and threatens the waterfront that the Hawaiian economy depends on.
Manuel said he likes to be optimistic, but the influx of plastic is endless – and there’s more every day. During a recent trip, Manuel's team recovered close to 100 plastic utensils, more than 300 plastic toys, almost 900 flip-flops and 14 tons of trash in total. That is what keeps him motivated.
“See trash on the beach or on the street? Pick it up!” he urges anyone who will listen. “It'll end up in the ocean somehow.”
And if it does, Manuel might be the one picking it up in the end.