KAMILO BEACH — Garbage, as far as the eye can see.

For generations, Kamilo Beach on the Kau coast of the Big Island of Hawaii was known as a magnet for driftwood. Two currents — one coming up from South Point and the other coming down from Cape Kumukahi — combined with fierce onshore winds to make this rocky stretch of shoreline the final resting place for plenty of natural debris.

Today, among those logs, seeds and grains of sand is something else entirely: a full rainbow of plastics ranging in scope from pea-sized building blocks called “nurdles” up to larger items like bottle caps, toothbrushes, fishing gear, computer monitors and barrels.

Some debris visible on a visit this week — such as a used Aloha Soy Sauce packet — was quite obviously generated in Hawaii. Cigarettes are another example of locally-produced waste — they’d decompose during a long trek across the sea.

But much of the debris — it’s impossible to know exactly how much — comes to Kamilo from much farther away. One piece of plastic was adorned with Japanese writing. Ropes were sprinkled with a species of barnacle found commonly in the Pacific Northwest.

(View a slideshow from Civil Beat’s trip to Kamilo Beach.)

Kamilo Beach, known as Hawaii’s dirtiest, has become a symbol of the destructive wastefulness of contemporary life, and it’s about to get worse.

It’s the victim of what’s known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of plastic garbage hundreds of miles wide between Hawaii and California. Currents from around the Pacific deposit trash in the gyre, which spins rubbish out onto Hawaii’s shoreline.

The next big surge is feared to come from the debris dragged into the ocean by the March 11 tsunami in Japan. It will reach the islands in the next few years, University of Hawaii researchers say.

Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner of the university’s International Pacific Research Center said last week they’d developed a model to predict the spread of tsunami debris from Japan.

“In a year, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument will see pieces washing up on its shores; in two years, the remaining Hawaiian islands will see some effects,” the pair wrote in a press release [pdf]. “In five years, Hawaii shores can expect to see another barrage of debris that is stronger and longerlasting than the first one.”

It’s unclear whether the debris has been tainted by the thousands of gallons of nuclear-contaminated water that were dumped into the Pacific Ocean in recent weeks. Maximenko said the debris plume and radioactive spill were separated in time so that most of the debris was already well offshore before the radiation leaked into the ocean.

“Liquid radioactivity should not be a threat to Hawaii or US mainland as it will be efficiently mixed horizontally and vertically with huge amount of sea water,” he told Civil Beat in an email. “There is, however, slight rather theoretical possibility of debris being exposed to radioactive rain or new solid debris being deposited in the ocean in the Fukushima area.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it needed more time to review Civil Beat’s questions about contaminated debris.

Hafner told Civil Beat Tuesday that while the model was designed to predict currents on the open ocean, it’s common knowledge where trash washes up — places like Kamilo. He said the tsunami debris represents an “unprecedented amount” heading toward the U.S. mainland and Hawaii.

“All this was a natural disaster, so it is an act of God, and you cannot do much about it,” he said. “People can try to clean it, but I doubt that there is enough resources locally to do the cleanup.”

Still, people are trying.

Clean-up Efforts

Out the trash comes, one pickup-truck-load at a time. The glass gets recycled, plastic garbage ends up in the landfill and old fishing nets — which Hawaii Wildlife Fund Director of Research Bill Gilmartin estimates comprises about two-thirds of the 130 tons his group has taken out of Kamilo since 2003 — are barged to Oahu, where they’re burned in H-POWER to provide some of Honolulu’s electricity.

The organization puts together regular cleanups at Kamilo and adjacent Kaalualu Bay. On Monday, a small group pulled out between 500 and 700 pounds of garbage, Gilmartin said.

But for every truckload of garbage that comes out, more comes in from the ocean.

One proposed law hopes to cut into the garbage source. Senate Bill 1363, which passed the House of Representatives Tuesday, would add a 10-cent fee for all single-use retail bags — both paper and plastic.

Surfrider Foundation Hawaii Coordinator Stuart Coleman, among those at Kamilo Beach Monday, testified [pdf] that the bill would “not only improve Hawaii’s natural environment but also help counties save money by extending the life of our landfills.”

Even if nations around the Pacific enacted similar rules or banned plastic bags altogether, the situation at Kamilo wouldn’t be resolved any time soon.

“Because so much of the material is out there, it’s going to be a couple of decades before what’s out there is gone. It’s not like if we stop today, all of a sudden we’re not going to be seeing plastic on the beaches,” Gilmartin said, surveying the scene at Kamilo Monday.

It is true that awareness of marine debris is on the rise. Last month, the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference was held in Honolulu.

But Gilmartin knows that no matter what laws are put into place, he’ll be driving his pickup to Kamilo Beach for years to come.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

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