Plastic pollution in Hawaii | Earth.Org – Past | Gift

The islands’ rapprochement with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and plastic consumption in the tourism industry have caused plastic pollution in Hawaii to skyrocket, blanketing its once pristine beaches in plastic waste. We look at the environmental impacts of plastic buildup as well as solutions to address this growing problem.


From white sand beaches and clear blue waters to palm trees in the breeze, Hawaii’s tropical islands have long had a reputation as a paradise. It is home to a rich biodiversity, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, green sea turtle, millions of seabirds, and an amazing variety of flora and fauna. But due to rampant plastic pollution globally, the islands’ once pristine coastlines are now infested with plastic trash and debris, threatening its natural ecosystem and wildlife.

According to Hawaii Wildlife Fund (HWF), an estimated 15 to 20 tons of marine litter is dumped on Hawaii’s shores each year, 96% of which is plastic. In a separate report, the Kokua Hawaii Foundation also found that 70% of all ocean plastic waste comes from land-based sources. But where does all this come from?

Causes of Plastic Pollution in Hawaii

Global plastic consumption has reached unsustainable levels. Today, we produce around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, and up to 11 million tonnes end up in our oceans. But plastic pollution in Hawaii is particularly excruciating due to the islands location in the North Pacific gyre, particularly its proximity to the Large Garbage Patchalso known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The patch refers to a massive collection of marine plastic debris located in the North Pacific Ocean, which is estimated to be 1.6 million square kilometers in size, accumulating around three million tons of plastic. It is formed by rotating ocean currents known as gyres, akin to giant whirlpools, with plastic waste circulating in the center of a gyre spread across the surface of ocean waters.

As a result, plastic debris from around the world ends up stranded in Hawaii, with some estimates in 2010 placing an average of 484 pieces of plastic accumulating in one locality. Much of the plastic waste dates back decades.

One of the hardest hit places is Kamilo Beach, located at the southeastern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii, which has since been dubbed one of the most plastic-polluted places on Earth. Recent ocean cleanup efforts have seen more than 47 tonnes of plastic waste eliminated from the shores of Hawaii in just 24 days. Some plastics were cut directly from animals, including a four-year-old female Hawaiian monk seal, with a netting tightly wrapped around her neck. According to project volunteers, it was a common sight.

Image courtesy of: Raftography Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

The impacts of ocean plastic pollution

Contrary to what most people believe, plastic pollution in the oceans does not just come from plastic bottles and bags, but is largely made up of abandoned commercial fishing nets. These nets make up at least 46% of the Great Garbage Patch. Their presence in the oceans can be deadly to marine wildlife with nearly 100,000 animals dying from entanglement each year. Often referred to as “ghost nets”, these abandoned fishing debris trap marine animals and prevent them from feeding or swimming. Wild animals can strangle themselves if the nets get tangled around their necks. Many also suffer physical trauma and infections from the plastic cutting into their flesh.

A large number of vulnerable wildlife species are being pushed closer to threat and extinction due to increased plastic pollution and debris in the ocean, including the aforementioned Hawaiian monk seal – estimated population about 1,400 people – and the hawksbill turtle, where fewer than 200 nesting females have been spotted in Hawaii over the past 30 years.

Additionally, marine animals often mistake plastic debris for food and accidentally ingest it. The plastics fill their stomachs and prevent them from eating, causing many people to die of starvation. When wildlife consume plastics, the toxic contaminants build up in the food web over time, eventually reaching humans.

Hawaii anglers regularly catch plastic-filled fish, with a 2019 study finding that fish in Hawaiian waters consume plastic particles just days after birth. As reef fish make up a large part of the local diet, including their popular raw fish dishes like poke, the natives have unwittingly consumed more and more plastic. Although there is no evidence yet that impacts of plastic consumption on human healthsome early studies suggest adverse effects on prenatal developments and reproductive systems.

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How is Hawaii tackling plastic pollution?

There is no denying the urgent need to tackle unbridled plastic pollution in Hawaii and prevent further damage to natural and human systems.

The first thing policymakers decided to tackle was single-use plastics. In 2015, the islands became the first state in the United States to ban plastic bags in grocery stores. Honolulu, the state capital, went a step further in late 2019 by introducing one of the most restrictive plastic bans in the United States and bans all single-use plastic food containers. This includes straws, utensils and polystyrene. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in single-use containers due to early fears of surface contamination.

Hawaii being one of the most visited and popular vacation destinations in the world, tourism leads to significant amounts of consumption and plastic waste; around 300,000 single-use plastic pieces are used every month in a standard four-star hotel with 200 rooms. To alleviate this, lawmakers are considering a bill to ban single-use plastic bottles in hotels, forcing companies to supply toiletries in bulk dispensers instead. Luxury hotel chain giants like Marriott and Hyatt have already pledged to phase out plastic bottles by the end of 2022 at the latest.

However, many gaps remain in plastic-related policies. Following China’s announcement of a plastic import ban – where many major industrialized countries used to send their waste to be recycled in China, Hawaii is stop accepting plastic recycling. Instead, the state has redirected plastics to landfills, where toxic substances can leach into soil and water sources, as well as incinerate them as in the case of Oahu where the waste is burned. to generate electricity. Although the waste-to-energy facility helps to reduce the waste sent to landfills, the practice of burn plastic waste increases a number of health risks, including heart and respiratory disease, not to mention that the black carbon (or soot) released from it contributes to climate change and air pollution.

In March 2020, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also ordered Hawaii’s Department of Health to take ‘remedial action under the Clean Water Act’ to assess whether the plastic is polluting the state’s water after state officials reported it. not done in 2018. Under the law, the U.S. agency can designate any water as “impaired.” organizations that do not meet state water quality standards, forcing authorities to take concrete action to reduce pollution.

Image courtesy of: Raftography Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

Bryce K. Locke