What if the boogie boards, snorkels, drink coolers and floaties that tourists buy, only to discard at the end of their vacation, could be collected, sanitized and repurposed for the next wave of vacationers?

The winning solution at Hawaii’s inaugural climate hackathon would create a circular economy for beach accessories, incentivizing hotels to pre-sell custom bundles of discounted, gently used beach goods. The beach toys would be waiting for customers in their hotel rooms upon check-in.

“For the customers themselves, this is like a total cool factor because they’re going to have an impact of zero waste while they’re here on vacation,” said Scott Cooney, a clean energy entrepreneur and writer who advised the winning team. “And it’s very convenient — these things will show up in their hotel room.”

Photographer and filmmaker Alex Khan, left, and architectural designer Tristan Bassingwaighte polish their Climathon Honolulu pitch before presenting their idea to a panel of judges. Brittany Lyte

The brainchild of an engineer, social worker, MBA grad and small business owner, the top-scoring idea was developed during a 24-hour competition to come up with innovative solutions to this question: “How can we reduce the human impact of tourism in Honolulu?”

The Honolulu cohort joined participants in more than 100 worldwide cities as part of the fifth annual Climathon, a forum for entrepreneurs, students, developers and brainstormers to meet up and race the clock to find solutions to the unique climate challenges facing their city.

Tourism's Tipping Point

A panel of local judges chooses a winning idea based on factors such as feasibility, funding, political or cultural ramifications and scalability.

Established in 2015 by a climate innovation initiative under the auspices of the European Union, this year’s Climathon winners from each city are invited to a summit in Paris next spring to present their ideas for a chance to win financial backing and support from global accelerators.

Each participating city has a unique guiding question that caters to climate change challenges in that geography.

Climathon Honolulu organizer Nicole Chatterson, a political ecologist at the University of Hawaii’s Office of Sustainability, said Hawaii’s reliance on imported goods, hefty tourism economy and growing solid waste generation inspired organizers to center the event’s guiding question on efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions produced by Hawaii’s visitor industry.

“When you take a look at the way our tourism sector is operating now, it’s pretty heavy on single use,” said Chatterson, who is the co-founder of Zero Waste Oahu. “You’re coming to visit a place and you’re not necessarily bringing a reusable bag and a reusable water bottle, and we’re catering to that behavior.”

“There’s a lot of wasted boogie boards and snorkels and all of these things that we’re spending a lot of energy, greenhouse gas emissions, land and capital making things to be used only once and then they’re getting thrown away.”

Climathon Honolulu, organized by George Yarbrough, left, Nicole Chatterson, center, and Dr. Darragh O’Carroll, asks participants to discover solutions to the question: “How can we reduce the human impact of tourism in Honolulu?” Brittany Lyte

The event, the first of its kind for Hawaii, was hosted by the co-working office and event space Impact Hub Honolulu.

“We want to showcase that climate change is a big deal and we’re actually feeling it in Honolulu and so let’s take action on it,” said Impact Hub Honolulu co-founder George Yarbrough. “Let’s take action on what’s affecting us in our own city.” 

Hackathons usually seek high-tech solutions to a problem, but Climathon also prizes innovations that are surprisingly analog.

The winning pitch out of Khartoum, Sudan, last year outlined a plan to reforest a city increasingly threatened by desertification by manually launching seed bombs, which are essentially soil and seeds wrapped in cloth, onto barren land.

In London last year, the winning team went on to create a comprehensive air quality map of the city by affixing sensors to bicycle shares, taxis and public buses. The group is now working with the city government on how to best use the data the sensors collected.

Dubbed “Get Zero Wasted,” Honolulu’s winning idea is poised to help the state achieve recognition as a sustainable tourism destination, said Chelsea Harder, who helped judge the local pitches.

By igniting visitors’ awareness of their personal contributions to solid waste and greenhouse gas emissions while on vacation, Harder said the beach goods recycling system could play an important role in educating the next generation of jet-setters.

“The UN globally recognized Hawaii as a space where we’re really tackling these challenges,” said Harder, a coordinator at Hawaii Green Growth.

“So this really connects to the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that just came out from the UN that basically said we have 10 years to turn this ship around by 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. And it also says status quo will not get us there.”

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